Because of the COVID-19 epidemic and confinement measures, pilgrims are staying away from the Holy Land. The streets of Jerusalem will certainly be quite empty at Easter. ACN International looks at the situation and relays the calls to pray for local Christians. The cancellation of pilgrimages will have serious repercussions on the tourism industry on which many Christian families in Israel and the Palestinian Territories depend.

The coronavirus in the Holy Land has forced thousands of pilgrims to leave. Clearly, “many Christians will suffer from this, especially in Bethlehem, because they are employed in the tourist sector,” laments Brother Ibrahim Faltas, in charge, among other things, of relations with the Palestinian Authority and Israel for the Custody of the Holy Land. “Without pilgrims, no one works,” he added. This is more so since everything is interconnected in the economic ecosystem of Christians of the Holy Land: revenues from tourism fund social and pastoral works carried out by Christian institutions through parishes, shrines, schools, hospices, retirement homes … Many Christians can thus have “a worthy job” to support their families, as Cardinal Sandri, prefect of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, said recently.

At present, “with the forced closure of all hotels, bars and restaurants, most of our employees are at home, out of work. The same happened in the past at the time of the Intifadas. We do not know how we will be able to pay everyone for a long while,” said Brother Alberto Joan Pari, also of the Custody. He explains that all the Casa Nova guest houses run by the Franciscans in the Holy Land are now closed. Souvenir and craft shops, as well as transport companies (taxis, buses, car rentals) are teetering on the edge. The small family-run businesses are not solid enough to withstand such a shock. In the past, when the Holy Land experienced wartime conditions, some managed to temporarily find an economic niche outside tourism. Now with the pandemic, all business sectors are affected, everything is closed, and it is impossible to take the risk of moving to another place to do something else.

“We have already started to support the neediest families,” said Brother Ibrahim. “For us too, the local Church,” he admits, “it will be difficult to help people.”

When asked by ACN how they can be helped, Brother Ibrahim said: “Undoubtedly, your prayers will provide great support, so will encouraging pilgrims to come back to this land as soon as possible,” he added.

Brother Alberto agrees. In his view, the Brothers in the Holy Land will answer prayers by doing the same in the Holy Places for all those who are suffering as a result of the virus. However, he adds that donations and offerings will be welcome when they become possible. He is conscious that the situation could get worse for local Christians if the “Good Friday collection” is postponed, as he fears. This collection is meant to show the solidarity of Catholic Churches around the world towards the Holy Land. It is also one of the main sources of revenue for the upkeep of the Holy Places, the welcoming of pilgrims and the support for the local Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East in their efforts to ensure that Christians remain in their countries. “For the moment, the Good Friday collection has not been cancelled, even though the faithful in Europe and probably in America will not be able to go to their churches to make their donations. There are plans to move the date to the summer, but nothing is certain,” said Brother Alberto. Without a collection, “the loss would represent 80% of our income,” warns the Franciscan.

Meanwhile, the atmosphere in the Holy Land is gloomy. On 12 March, the Franciscan Pilgrims Office in Jerusalem cancelled until further notice all Masses booked by pilgrim tours in Holy Land shrines. For now, churches and shrines in Israel are open, said Brother Alberto, but only ten people can take part in a liturgy. “The heads of the Churches meet every day and decisions are taken one at a time,” noted Brother Alberto.

On the Palestinian side, the authorities quarantined the city of Bethlehem more than two weeks ago. Schools and universities (including Christian institutions), mosques and churches are completely closed, including, since 5 March, the Basilica of the Nativity, the birthplace of Jesus. “In the past, it was only closed in the event of war or siege [as in 2002],” said Brother Alberto, who added that he had no information about when it would reopen.

In Jerusalem, a few butcher and food shops were still open last Friday, but the streets were mostly empty, with no one about and almost all store shutters lowered. No pilgrims on the horizon. “Just to think that only a month ago, pilgrims couldn’t find a place to sleep!” It was very crowded. But now no one is left, the last American pilgrims left last week”, said Brother Ibrahim.

Will the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre still be open for Easter festivities? Nothing is less certain. On 25 March, Israeli authorities decided to close the holy place. “We have been informed of the closure. Our understanding is that it is for one week. We hope (the church) will reopen as soon as possible,” said Wadie Abunassar, a spokesperson for Jerusalem clergy, speaking to AFP. The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem said on its website that Holy Week and Easter celebrations this year would be marked “by preventive and restrictive measures”. While the schedule for the Holy Days is not yet known, Brother Alberto thinks that “there will probably be no public celebration” therefore, no pilgrims.

A European woman who has lived in Jerusalem for years explains that the pilgrimage agency for which she works had all tours booked until the end of April cancelled, including Easter, which generally marks the first high season of the year with the arrival of thousands of visitors. “Other colleagues have cancelled groups tours until August. Everyone hopes to see things get back to normal after the summer, for the other high season of the year (September-October). “Let us put our trust in the Lord; everything is in his hands even though we are going through a time that is hard to understand and to accept,” she said.

ACN approved 40 projects in the Holy Land in 2018 and 2019 for a total of more than €675,000.