March 22, 2020 / 3:53 PM / 6 days ago

Dark hallways of Jerusalem's Sepulchre church eerily empty

A worshipper prays inside the Syrian Orthodox section of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, revered as the site of Jesus's crucifixion and burial, amid concerns over the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Jerusalem's Old City March 22, 2020. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Religious chants echoed on Sunday through almost empty prayer chambers and passageways in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, with coronavirus precautions limiting attendance at the place revered as the site of Jesus’s crucifixion and burial.

The small congregation contrasted starkly with the crowds of Christian pilgrims who normally fill the church in the lead-up to the Easter holiday.

“Usually (on) the Sunday of Lent we have all the parish of Jerusalem gathered here at the Holy Sepulchre, and all the parish pray and we are united,” said Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa. “Now we cannot have celebrations, so we have very reduced celebration, very small, very simple, modest. This is very painful for us.”

The church, in Jerusalem’s walled Old City, has said worshippers should not enter in groups of more than 10 and ought to maintain a distance of at least two metres between one another.

Other sacred sites across the Holy Land have ordered similar precautions, including the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth and in Bethlehem, revered as Jesus’s birthplace, the Church of the Nativity has shut down entirely.

Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third holiest site, has limited Friday prayers to the open outdoor areas of the mosque compound - one of the most sensitive spots in the Middle East - which Muslims refer to as the Noble Sanctuary and Jews call the Temple Mount.

At the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism where Jews are allowed to pray, religious authorities have instructed the faithful to refrain from holding mass prayers and from kissing the stones of the ancient wall which abuts the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary complex.

Reporting by Ammar Awad; editing by Philippa Fletcher

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