JERUSALEM — In the Old City of Jerusalem on Friday morning, in the alleys of the Christian quarter, it was as if the pandemic had never happened.
The winding passageways that form the Via Dolorosa, along which Christians believe Jesus hauled his cross toward his crucifixion, were packed with over 1,000 worshipers. The Good Friday procession, where the faithful retrace the route Jesus is said to have taken, was back.
“It is like a miracle,” said the Rev. Amjad Sabbara, a Roman Catholic priest who helped lead the procession. “We’re not doing this online. We’re seeing the people in front of us.”
Pandemic restrictions forced the cancellation of last year’s ceremony and required priests to hold services without congregants present. Now, thanks to Israel’s world-leading vaccine rollout, religious life in Jerusalem is edging back to normal. And on Friday, that brought crowds back to the city’s streets, and relief to even one of Christianity’s most solemn commemorations: the Good Friday procession.
For much of the past year, the pandemic kept the Old City eerily empty. But with nearly 60 percent of Israeli residents fully vaccinated, the city’s streets were once again thrumming, even if international tourists were still absent.
At the gathering point for the procession on Friday, there was scarcely space to stand. The crowd moved slowly off, singing mournful hymns as they proceeded along what Christians consider a re-enactment of Jesus’ last steps.
In the alley outside the chapel of St. Simon of Cyrene, the marchers trailed their fingers over an ocher limestone in the chapel wall. According to tradition, Jesus steadied himself against the stone after a stumble.
Finally, they reached the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which believers think was the site of Christ’s crucifixion, burial and, ultimately, resurrection.
For some, the Good Friday procession carried even more resonance than usual — its themes of suffering, redemption and renewal seeming particularly symbolic as the end of a deadly pandemic appeared finally in sight.
“We have gained hope again,” said George Halis, 24, who is studying to be a priest and who lives in the Old City. “Last year was like a darkness that came over all of earth.”
But for now, that togetherness continues to face limits. There are still restrictions on the number of worshipers at Easter services. Masks are still a legal requirement. And foreigners still need an exemption to enter Israel — keeping out thousands of pilgrims, at the expense of local shopkeepers who depend on their business.
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