Christians mark Good Friday as some holy sites reopen
The virus is still raging in the Philippines, France, Brazil and other predominantly Christian countries, where worshippers are marking a second annual Holy Week under various movement restrictions amid outbreaks fanned by more contagious strains.
Last year, Jerusalem was under a strict lockdown, with sacred rites observed by small groups of priests, often behind closed doors. It was a stark departure from past years, when tens of thousands of pilgrims would descend on the city's holy sites.
This year, Franciscan friars in brown robes led hundreds of worshippers down the Via Dolorosa, retracing what tradition holds were Jesus' final steps, while reciting prayers through loudspeakers at the Stations of the Cross. Another group carried a wooden cross along the route through the Old City, singing hymns and pausing to offer prayers.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the site where Christians believe Jesus was crucified, died and rose from the dead, is open to visitors with masks and social distancing.
"Things are open, but cautiously and gradually," said Wadie Abunassar, an adviser to church leaders in the Holy Land. "In regular years we urge people to come out. Last year we told people to stay at home... This year we are somehow silent."
Israel has launched one of the world's most successful vaccination campaigns, allowing it to reopen restaurants, hotels and religious sites. But air travel is still limited by quarantine and other restrictions, keeping away the foreign pilgrims who usually throng Jerusalem during Holy Week.
The main holy sites are in the Old City in east Jerusalem, which Israel occupied along with the West Bank in the 1967 war. Israel illegally annexed east Jerusalem and considers the entire city its unified capital, while the Palestinians want both territories for their future state.
Israel included Palestinian residents of Jerusalem in its vaccination campaign, but has only provided a small number of vaccines to those in the occupied West Bank, where the Palestinian Authority has imported tens of thousands of doses for a population of more than 2.5 million.
Israeli authorities said up to 5,000 Christian Palestinians from the West Bank would be permitted to enter for Easter celebrations. Abunassar said he was not aware of any large tour groups from the West Bank planning to enter, as in years past, likely reflecting concerns about the virus.
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