Claiming discrimination, Vatican urges Holy Sepulchre open for Easter broadcast

In letter to attorney general, representative in the Holy Land points to continued limited prayers at Western Wall, demands traditional live transmission of service be permitted

A woman prays in front of the closed Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in the Old City of Jerusalem, March 25, 2020. (Mahmoud Illean/AP)
A woman prays in front of the closed Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in the Old City of Jerusalem, March 25, 2020. (Mahmoud Illean/AP)

The Vatican’s official representative in the Holy Land on Tuesday appealed to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit for Easter services at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre be permitted, claiming that shuttering the Jerusalem site due to the coronavirus outbreak is discrimination against Christians when limited prayers are continuing at the Western Wall.

A letter penned by Farid Jubran, the General Counsel at Custodia Terrae Sanctae, urged that the upcoming traditional Easter services be allowed, with just enough church representatives and camera crew present to enable a live broadcast of the event to millions of Christians around the world.

“It is inconceivable that especially at a time like this, Easter prayers will not be broadcast to the hundreds of millions of believers who are in their homes in dire need” of religious inspiration, the letter said.

Under Health Ministry lockdown orders prohibiting gatherings of more than 10 people in one place due to virus, places of worship throughout the country had largely been shuttered. At the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which closed its doors to the public last Wednesday, daily services had continued with the participation of only a handful of church officials.

However, the cabinet overnight Monday approved a set of new measures further tightening restrictions on the public amid efforts to limit the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, including a ban on prayer quorums that effectively means even the small number officiating at the church would no longer be able to gather. But, despite the ban, at the Western Wall a single minyan (or prayer quorum) of 10 people was still allowed during three daily services, with participants keeping a distance of two meters from each other.

According to church officials, a similar arrangement of very limited services has also been allowed at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in the West Bank city of Hebron.

Cleaning workers disinfect the Western wall due to the COVID-19 virus in the Old city of Jerusalem, March 31 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“While last night it was publicized that the Israeli government has exempted the Western Wall and Tomb of the Patriarchs [from lockdown rules], the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the holiest site to hundreds of millions of Christians around the world, remains closed with a total ban on holding services,” the letter said. “This situation is unacceptable.”

“This is illegitimate discrimination in the simplest sense and, as such, an illegal limitation on the basic right to religious freedom of a particular religious group against a background of its religious affiliation,” the letter noted.

It asked that “Easter prayers be held in a small forum of no more than 10 clergy and cameramen who will broadcast it live to the Christian world.”

Church leaders and their representatives are willing to hold immediate talks about the matter to resolve the issue as soon as possible, the letter concluded.

Easter this year falls on April 12.

On Monday the heads of the Catholic, Greek, and Armenian churches in the country sent similar letters of appeal to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin asking they intervene to allow limited Easter services to be held.

Last week the Islamic Waqf decided to close the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem to the public for a limited period of time, also as a measure against the spread of the coronavirus.

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