Coronavirus Takes Spirit Out of Jerusalem Holy Sites, but Residents Cling to Faith

Chrisitian, Muslim and Jewish sites at the Old City adapt to new restrictions on congregation and prayer as coronavirus tours the Holy Land

By: Nir Hasson  

Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem, March 15, 2020.
Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem, March 15, 2020. Emil Salman

At the Western Wall plaza, tape was laid out to separate groups of worshippers. At the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Stone of the Anointing was sanitized and incense was spread. The gates of the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock were closed to worshipers, who prayed instead in the outdoor courts. The prohibitions imposed in an attempt to limit the coronavirus outbreak have been heard quite well in Jerusalem’s Old City.

Yisrael Lubin, a Hasid from Jerusalem, passed the afternoon hours at the entrance to the Western Wall plaza, trying  to convince men to put on tefillin. “They are scaring people,” he said. “I believe that everything comes from the Holy One, Blessed be He. We need to make an effort not to be deterred – although if the time has come for someone then it has come, if not from bacteria then from an accident. It’s easier for the believers. These days, if you don’t feel God you go crazy.”skip – Israel’s coronavirus crisis could be Bibi’s swan song. Haaretz weekly podcast

Lubin’s mission takes on a new meaning in the time of coronavirus: Worshipers fear using the leather straps of the phylacteries because they have passed through many hands. “Here you are under the protection of the Holy One, Blessed Be he – he loves you,” said Lubin in an attempt to calm people down. “It is not a coincidence that no one has died yet here. In other places they are falling like flies.”

In the prayer space right in front of the Western Wall, dozens of worshipers moved around – the great majority of them ultra-Orthodox. “What should I do, lie under the bed?” explained one of them, Moish Ben Gabriel. “It won’t help to be afraid.” The nonreligious visitors and tourists who normally fill the site were now hardly seen there.

On the way from the Western Wall to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, there is another Old City institution hurt by the virus breakout: The Abu Shukri restaurant. COVID-19 patients 92 and 98 had eaten there last week and the restaurant owners chose to close the place until the storm passes. Most of the adjacent businesses were still open but empty.

The crowded streets and prospering businesses of the Old City stood empty. The movement of police and Border Police officers could be felt – but the police were equipped with masks on their faces.

The merchants in the Old City have gotten used to exceptional events that disrupt their daily routine and prevent them from making a living. The intifadas, protests, terror attacks, visits by presidents and kings, days of rage and plain days of fear – they have been coming and going for decades. The present threat, however, is completely foreign to Jerusalem.

“It’s like a bomb that fell suddenly,” said Zaki Himo, a café owner at Damascus Gate. “You don’t know when it will end. There are no tourists and there is fear. Since the morning, I didn’t even make 80 shekels ($22). It’s not enough for a family of five people.”

“We received an order from the police to close,” said Abu Musa, the owner of a small tea shop at the entrance to Al-Aqsa Mosque. “If this lasts two months, we will hang on. But if not, we will have to look for other work,” he said.

The Western Wall, Jerusalem, March 15, 2020.
The Western Wall, Jerusalem, March 15, 2020. Ohad Zwigenberg

A clean angle for a selfie 

The Islamic Waqf closed the Al-Aqsa and Dome of the Rock mosques and called for worshipers to pray in the outdoor plaza instead. Waqf ushers passed between them and asked to keep a safe distance from one another.

In the morning, the police closed some of the gates to the complex for a short time and Jewish visitors were allowed to enter in groups of no more than 10 people. According to the instructions of the Health Ministry, the Chief Rabbinate has closed down all the Jewish ritual baths for men, which makes it harder for religious Jews to visit the Temple Mount, because they traditionally must immerse themselves before entering.

The plaza in front of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is packed full with groups of tourists every day, was almost completely empty too. French news agency photographer Gali Tibbon convinced the monks to clean the Stone of the Anointing with alcohol.

The Al-Aqsa Mosque complex, Jerusalem, March 16, 2020.
The Al-Aqsa Mosque complex, Jerusalem, March 16, 2020. Mahmoud Illean/AP

Inside the church, the monks placed burning incense everywhere, hoping that the smell would drive away the virus. The few tourists who were there were asked to enter in small groups. People were allowed to enter the Aedicula, the small chapel that encloses the tomb of Jesus, in pairs – compared to regular times when thousands of pilgrims wait to enter the packed chamber. A tourist from Russia took her mask off her face so she could kiss the stone at the entrance.

The Holy Fire ceremony, whose climax is the descent of fire from the heavens into the hands of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch inside the Aedicula, is to take place on Holy Saturday, three weeks from now. This is the most important event of the year in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and thousands participate. It is clear to everyone that the ceremony will take place this year without an audience.

The few tourists who came nonetheless, enjoyed selfies without interference. On Friday, a large group of pilgrims from Russia visited the church. They entered Israel through the Taba land crossing from the Sinai Peninsula for a one-day only visit to Jerusalem.

It may have been the last large group to visit the Holy Land in the near future.

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