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Pilgrims turned away from Jerusalem’s Holy Sepulcher on reopening day

Holy Sepulcher
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Officials had limited visitors to 50 people.

Christianity’s “Mother Church,” the basilica in Jerusalem marking the site of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, was set to reopen to the public Sunday, following two months of being shuttered due to the coronavirus pandemic. But people arriving at the entrance of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher were turned away.

“Religious officials said that reopening was postponed, but did not give a new date, hinting that there were difficulties in counting numbers in order to maintain social distancing,” the Times of Israel said, citing reports from Agence France-Presse. “One official told AFP that 50 clerics from various churches had came to pray, leaving no room for the public. Another official said it had been deemed preferable to wait for a further easing of Israeli restrictions so that 100 people could enter at a time.”

Two days earlier, the Catholic ecclesiastical official responsible for shrines in the Holy Land and two Orthodox patriarchs who share oversight for the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, said in a brief statement that starting on Sunday, “this most Holy Place will be accessible again to the faithful for visits and prayers.” They said that at the beginning stage of reopening, the number of those admitted to the church would be limited to 50 persons. “The Basilica will be accessible only to those who have no fever or symptoms of infection and are wearing suitable face coverings,” said the statement. “It will also be necessary to keep a minimal distance of 2 meters between each person and to avoid any act of devotion that might include physical contact such as touching and kissing the stones, icons, vestments and the personnel in the Basilica; as well as abide always by the given instructions.”

Franciscan Fr. Francesco Patton, Custos of the Holy Land; Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III, and Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem Nourhan Manougian signed the letter, saying they “continue our prayers, asking for the end of this pandemic.”

On Sunday, religious officials said that the reopening was postponed, but did not give a new date, hinting that there were difficulties in counting numbers in order to maintain social distancing, the Times said.

With the number of COVID-19 cases in Israel and the West Bank hovering around 17,000 and infection rates slowing, Israel has begun to loosen lockdown measures, the Times said. Religious sites were authorized to reopen last Wednesday with limits set at 50 people entering each site at any one time.

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