Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, one of the holiest sites in Christianity, reopened on Sunday, months after it closed for the first time since the 14th century, allowing a trickle of pilgrims into its winding halls under strict rules of social distancing.
The church, its crowded spaces typically crammed with thousands visitors from around the world, will now allow in 50 people at a time. They will have to wear masks and keep six feet from each other, according to the leaders of the three religious communities who together are the custodians of the site.
“From this Holy Place, in this Easter time, we continue our prayers, asking for the end of this pandemic,” the leaders of the Greek Orthodox, Catholic and Armenian Orthodox churches in Jerusalem said in a statement on Saturday. The churches share custody of the site.
They will take measures to “avoid the risk of a new spread of the COVID-19 infection,” they said, including asking worshipers not to touch or kiss the icons and stones with religious significance inside the church.
The basilica — built on the site where Christians believe Jesus was crucified, and also incorporating what is said to be his tomb — had been closed since March 25, ahead of the Easter holidays, to reduce the spread of the coronavirus in Israel. The keeper of the keys to the church said it was the first time it had been closed at length since the Black Death plague in 1349.
More than 16,700 coronavirus cases have been reported in Israel, with 279 deaths. Palestinian authorities have reported 368 cases in the occupied West Bank and two deaths.
Other religious sites in Jerusalem are slowly reopening as Israel loosens its lockdown measures, including the Western Wall, which is allowing a limited number of Jewish worshipers. Palestinian authorities have sought to impose a lockdown during this weekend’s Eid al-Fitr holiday that marks the end of Ramadan to try to limit the spread of the virus.