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Easter Middle East Eastern Christians mark Easter in shuttered Jerusalem church

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JERUSALEM (AP) — A handful of Eastern Orthodox priests held mass for the Christian holiday of Easter on Sunday in an empty Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem due to restrictions in place to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Eastern Christian rites mark Easter, the day Christians believe Jesus was resurrected after his crucifixion, a week after the Catholic calendar.

Ordinarily, the church would be filled with faithful and tourists, but travel restrictions imposed by Israel to prevent the spread of the coronavirus have prevented the arrival of pilgrims to Jerusalem for the springtime holiday and limited the gathering of worshipers at the church.

Easter mass was performed by a small group of clergy at the Holy Sepulcher, where many Christians believe Jesus was entombed. The square outside was empty, the church’s large wooden doors barred shut, but a few individual worshipers came to pray outside.

Israel has recorded over 13,000 COVID-19 cases and over 170 deaths.

A day earlier a small group of clerics at the church celebrated the ancient Holy Fire ceremony, which normally draws enormous crowds as a flame is transferred to faithful around the globe from within a chamber where Christians believe Jesus was buried and rose from the dead.

In Egypt, Pope Tawadros II, the spiritual leader of the country’s Coptic Orthodox Christians, held Easter services in an empty monastery in the desert, amid coronavirus restrictions that kept faithful from gathering at churches and monasteries across the country.

The services were held at the Monastery of Saint Pishoy, in a desert valley west of Cairo known as Wadi Natrun. A few clergymen attended the services, which was aired on a Coptic Orthodox television station. The clerics were seen practicing social distancing during the prayers.

The Coptic Orthodox Church, one the world’s oldest Christian communities, decided earlier this month to suspend Easter prayers and celebrations at churches and monasteries because of the spread of the deadly virus.

Christians constitute around 10 percent of Egypt’s more than 100 million predominantly Muslim population.

Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country, has 3,032 cases including 224 deaths.