JERUSALEM—Friday morning, in the limestone alleys of the Christian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, such a pandemic never seemed to have occurred.
Christians believe that Jesus walked along the winding road leading to Dolorosa Avenue along the cross where Jesus was nailed to the cross, which was crowded with more than 1,000 believers. In the covered market, the air was filled with fragrance and echoed with Christian hymns. The Good Friday parade returned, and it is said that the route that Jesus took was traced faithfully.
The Roman Catholic priest Rev. Amjad Sabbara said: “This is a miracle.”
The pandemic restrictions forced the cancellation of last year’s ceremony, requiring the priest to perform the ceremony without the presence of the gathering agent. Now, thanks to the launch of Israel’s world-leading vaccine, religious life in Jerusalem is gradually returning to normal. On Friday, this once again brought crowds to the streets of the city and even eased one of the most solemn commemorations of Christianity: the Good Friday parade.
“We are very lucky to be here,” said May Bathish, 40-year-old Father Sabala, who teaches at the Old Town Church. “When you take the same steps as Jesus, this is the highest privilege.”
For most of the past year, the pandemic has left the old city empty. Its shops, synagogues and churches are often closed, and the alleys are full of tourists and pilgrims. However, since nearly 60% of Israeli residents have received the vaccination, even if there are still no foreign tourists, the streets of the city have once again become a sensation.
Ms. Batish said: “When it is empty, it is like a ghost city.” She added: “Now, this is a city of life.”
At the meeting place of the Friday parade, there was almost no space to stand. The police prevented latecomers from entering from a nearby alley. Members of a Catholic youth group formed a circle around the supporters of the crucifix, the core replica of the procession, to prevent those who carried the cross from being spared by the waves of believers.
Many of the people in the parade were Palestinians who became Israeli residents after Israel occupied the Old City and other areas of East Jerusalem in 1967. About 6,000 Christians live in the old city with Muslims and Jews.
“Walk behind the cross!” Called a church official. “Behind the cross, everyone!”
Above the noise, Father Amjad called on the congregation to walk in pairs. “Two by two.” He shouted through the loudspeaker. “Not one after another!”
Then the crowd slowly walked away, singing hymns of mourning as they proceeded along what Christians believed was the last step of Jesus.
They embarked on the fitness road and drove along Dolorosa Street, passing the place where it is traditionally believed that Jesus was tried by Pontius Pilate, passing the place where he was flogged and mocked, passing shops selling Christian icons and crosses, ice cream and T-shirts.
They turned left and then right in the direction where Christians thought Jesus fell and stumbled under the weight of the cross.
In the alley outside St. Simon’s Church in Cyrene, marchers drag their fingers across the limestone on the church wall. According to tradition, Jesus stabilized on a rock after stumbled. Since then, for many centuries, many pilgrims have caressed the stone so that its surface now feels smooth.
Finally, they arrived at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which the believers believed was the place where Christ was crucified, buried and finally resurrected.
For some people, the Good Friday parade resonates more than usual-pain, the themes of salvation and revival seem to be particularly symbolic, because the end of the deadly pandemic is finally in sight.
“We got hope again,” said George Halis, 24, who is learning to be a pastor and living in the old city. “Last year was like darkness everywhere.”
For others, being able to get together again has theological importance as well as emotional importance.
Muske said: “All Christians are part of the body of Christ.” Vincenzo Peroni is a Catholic priest based in Jerusalem who regularly leads pilgrimages to the Holy Land. “Being able to celebrate together makes this more obvious.”
But for now, this unity still faces limitations. The number of believers during the Easter service is still limited. Masks are still required by law. Moreover, foreigners still need immunity from entering Israel-boycotting thousands of pilgrims, which depends on local shopkeepers who rely on their business to pay.
“It still feels abnormal,” said Hagop Karakashian, the owner of a famous ceramic shop in the old town, whose family designed the street signs for the neighborhood. “The locals can celebrate, yes. But there is still something missing.”
In the Palestinian cities of Bethlehem and Ramallah, a few miles away, Christians feel more relaxed and happy. Christians in the occupied territories can only visit Jerusalem with special permission, which becomes more difficult during the pandemic. Although most Israelis are now vaccinated, the vast majority of Palestinians have not yet been vaccinated.
Israel has provided vaccines to more than 100,000 Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank, almost all of whom work in Israel or West Bank settlements. Palestinian officials received another 150,000 doses.
But Israel says it is not obliged to vaccinate the rest of the Palestinian people, citing a clause in the Oslo Peace Agreement of the 1990s that transferred responsibility for health care to Palestinian officials. Critics say that Israel still has a responsibility to help, citing international laws that require the occupying power to monitor the health care of the occupied, and another clause of the Oslo agreement stipulates that Israel must cooperate with Palestinians during the epidemic.
Either way, the infection rate in the occupied territories is still high, while the vaccination rate is very low, which limits the number of Palestinian Christians allowed to enter Jerusalem this year for Easter. An Israeli government spokesperson declined to disclose the final figures.
“We can’t come without a permit,” said Pastor Jamal Khader, a Roman Catholic parish priest in Ramallah. “This is a sign of continued occupation and restricted movement.”
Father Card said, but the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ still provided spiritual nourishment to desperate people, and he was allowed to enter Jerusalem through his work with the church.
He said: “We identify with the pain of Good Friday.”
He added: “Then we found hope on Easter Sunday.”