Silence and prayers: lockdown life in Holy Sepulcher

By Joan Mas Autonell

Jerusalem, May 23 (efe-epa).- Silence, prayers and psalms: this is the rhythm of life for religious communities in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher which has been shut for almost two months, its longest closure in centuries.

The basilica normally receives thousands of pilgrims and tourists every day but Covid-19 has forced it to close to the public since 25 March.

It is expected to reopen in the coming days, possibly even on Sunday, when the worst of the pandemic is over but in the meantime, the faithful have to pray from afar.

The absence of devotees does not diminish the hallowed atmosphere of the temple, which contains the holiest sites for Christians where they believe Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected.

Small congregations of Franciscan monks, Armenian and Greek Orthodox priests reside permanently in the complex and continue with their liturgies despite the unfolding crisis.

Restrictive measures against the virus have radically altered life for the outside world but inside the ancient walls of the Holy Sepulcher the daily routine, rooted in historical traditions, has barely changed.

Brother Salvador Rosas, president of the Franciscan fraternity in the sanctuary, tells Efe: “We continue to carry out our dynamics in these times of pandemic.”

He opens the old wooden gate that is the entrance to the temple to give an exclusive insight into how the 10 monks of the Catholic order live in its empty halls.

They have had a continuous presence in the Holy Land for eight centuries.

The silence that has settled over the chapels, altars, icons and candlelit nooks contrasts with the bustle of crowds that used to fill the basilica.

The current situation is unprecedented in the church’s recent history.

In previous centuries “everything varied according to political and social circumstances but not so much in terms of health” Rosas says.

He laments the absence of pilgrims from the Palestinian Christian community, a local minority that had previously always been present even during unstable times.

Rosas says he has never known the Holy Sepulcher shut for so long, not even amid years of violence during the Palestinian-Israeli conflict from the 1980s and to the 2000s.

A closure of this magnitude had not happened for hundreds of years.

There were other times during friction with the Muslim authorities of the Ottoman Empire that the temple was locked.

The last time the church was sequestered in a similar situation to the current pandemic was in the Middle Ages.

“Something like what the coronavirus did on this occasion dates back to the Black Death in 1379,” Rosas explains.

The basilica was isolated for a long time in similar circumstances to the current crisis, he added.

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