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Christians mark Good Friday in Jerusalem as COVID restrictions eased

Commemorations larger than last year but still lacking the thousands of foreign pilgrims who usually throng the streets of Old City, Bethlehem for Holy Week

  • Christian worshippers carrying a wooden cross arrive at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, during a Good Friday procession along the Via Dolorosa (Way of Suffering) in Jerusalem's Old City on April 2, 2021. (Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP)
    Christian worshippers carrying a wooden cross arrive at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, during a Good Friday procession along the Via Dolorosa (Way of Suffering) in Jerusalem's Old City on April 2, 2021. (Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP)
  • A Christian carries a cross as he walks along the Via Dolorosa towards the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, traditionally believed by many to be the site of the crucifixion of Jesus during the Good Friday procession in Jerusalem's Old City, April 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
    A Christian carries a cross as he walks along the Via Dolorosa towards the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, traditionally believed by many to be the site of the crucifixion of Jesus during the Good Friday procession in Jerusalem's Old City, April 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
  • Christian worshippers carry a wooden cross along the Via Dolorosa (Way of Suffering) in Jerusalem's Old City during the Good Friday procession on April 2, 2021. (Photo by Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP)
    Christian worshippers carry a wooden cross along the Via Dolorosa (Way of Suffering) in Jerusalem's Old City during the Good Friday procession on April 2, 2021. (Photo by Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP)
  • A Christian carries a cross along the Via Dolorosa towards the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, traditionally believed by many to be the site of the crucifixion of Jesus during the Good Friday procession in Jerusalem's Old City, April 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
    A Christian carries a cross along the Via Dolorosa towards the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, traditionally believed by many to be the site of the crucifixion of Jesus during the Good Friday procession in Jerusalem's Old City, April 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
  • Christian worshippers carrying a wooden cross arrive at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, during a Good Friday procession along the Via Dolorosa (Way of Suffering) in Jerusalem's Old City on April 2, 2021. (Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP)
    Christian worshippers carrying a wooden cross arrive at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, during a Good Friday procession along the Via Dolorosa (Way of Suffering) in Jerusalem's Old City on April 2, 2021. (Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP)

Christians marked Good Friday this year amid signs the coronavirus crisis may be winding down in Israel, with religious sites open to limited numbers of faithful but none of the mass pilgrimages usually seen in the Holy Week leading up to Easter.

Last year, Jerusalem was under a strict lockdown, with sacred rites observed by small groups of priests, often behind closed doors. It was a stark departure from past years, when tens of thousands of pilgrims would descend on the city’s holy sites.

This year, Franciscan friars in brown robes led hundreds of worshippers down the Via Dolorosa, retracing what tradition holds were Jesus’ final steps, while reciting prayers through loudspeakers at the Stations of the Cross.

Another group carried a wooden cross along the route through the Old City, singing hymns and pausing to offer prayers.

Christian worshippers carry a wooden cross along the Via Dolorosa (Way of Suffering) in Jerusalem’s Old City during the Good Friday procession on April 2, 2021. (Photo by Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP)

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the site where Christians believe Jesus was crucified, died and rose from the dead, is open to visitors with masks and social distancing.

“Things are open, but cautiously and gradually,” said Wadie Abunassar, an adviser to church leaders. “In regular years we urge people to come out. Last year we told people to stay at home… This year we are somehow silent.”

Nuns watch Holy Thursday mass led by the Latin Patriarch at the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem, April 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

Israel has launched one of the world’s most successful vaccination campaigns, allowing it to reopen restaurants, hotels and religious sites.

But air travel is still limited by quarantine and other restrictions, keeping away the foreign pilgrims who usually throng Jerusalem during the holy week.

People attend a mass on a Palm Sunday at the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Sunday, March 28 2021. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

Israeli authorities said up to 5,000 Christian Palestinians from the West Bank would be permitted to enter for Easter celebrations.

Abunassar said he was not aware of any large tour groups from the West Bank planning to enter, as in years past, likely reflecting concerns about the virus.

Abunassar said most Christians in the region celebrate Holy Week in their local parishes.

The Good Friday services in the Old City are only expected to draw a small number of people, mainly priests and foreigners who reside in Israel.

Nuns pose for a selfie as they mark Palm Sunday on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, March 28, 2021. (AP Photo/ Mahmoud Illean)

However, hundreds gathered in Jerusalem and Bethlehem earlier in the week to mark Palm Sunday, although the gatherings were still relatively small and abided by social distancing measures.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem was open to the public and welcomed Roman Catholics to honor the day.

Later, worshipers marched in procession from the Mount of Olives to the Old City, following Jesus’ traditional route from 2,000 years ago.

Additionally, Christians gathered for Mass in the Church of the Nativity, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus.

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