COVID restrictions mean a very quiet Easter in the Holy Land

Credit: CBSNews
Credit: CBSNews

▶ Watch Video: COVID makes for a quiet Easter in the Holy Land

Jerusalem — The coronavirus is limiting Easter celebrations in Jerusalem for the second year in a row. Israel has fully vaccinated more than half of its population, but the country’s borders remain largely closed and as CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Palmer reports, that’s left the Holy City’s streets empty when they’d normally be packed with tourists.

Palmer was one of the few people to be seen as she visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the runup to Easter. One of the holiest sites in Christianity, it would typically be packed with pilgrims right now, praying on the spot where they believe Jesus was crucified — and then rose from the dead.

Israel’s COVID restrictions mean no crowds are allowed, but Father Louis Khouri, a Franciscan monk who serves in the church, told Palmer he wasn’t worried about the pandemic spoiling the mood of holiday.

Fransiscan friars march in procession during a mass to commemorate the Washing of the Feet around the Edicule, traditionally believed to be the burial site of Jesus Christ, on Holy Thursday at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, April 1, 2021.


“I expect the Easter celebration will never be melancholic. When we are not together, it is hard,” he said. “But the joy is the fact that Jesus is risen from the dead.”

That’s the spiritual view, but for many of the Holy City’s residents, there are more material concerns.

In the ancient alleys of East Jerusalem, souvenir merchants haven’t seen a single customer in months. Thousands of visitors should be thronging down the Via Dolorosa right now, the route that Christians believe Christ took to face his death on the cross.

Instead, the alleys are empty and the shops are shuttered.

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Palmer met Faraj as he opened his shop for the first time in a year, hoping for some Easter trade. He was left disappointed.

“Very, very bad [for] tourists. Very, very bad situation. No tourists in the Old City, no business, no food — nothing! No life!” he lamented.

A small crowd did come out for the traditional procession and religious service on Palm Sunday, but it was all Israeli residents. The mass vaccination program may be beating back the coronavirus inside the country, but Israel’s borders remain closed to virtually all outsiders.

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The travel restrictions have kept the doors of the American Colony Hotel closed, too, for a year now. The man who runs it, Jeremy Berkovits, is keeping busy, but he’s eager to re-open, and hoping that can happen this summer.

It’s not up to him, however. It will depend on when Israel eases its travel restrictions, and other governments do the same.

“In a global economy, we need tourists from America, Sweden, the U.K., the whole world,” Berkovits told CBS News. “As long as we have most of the developed world still unable to travel… we’re struggling.”

For Christians, Easter celebrates a return to life – the very thing that people of all faiths in this Holy City are praying for now.