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In a test of faith, Christians mark Good Friday in isolation

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A priest closes the door of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a place where Christians believe Jesus Christ was buried, during a lockdown following government measures to help stop the spread of the coronavirus, during Holy Thursday in Jerusalem’s old city, Thursday, April 9, 2020. The traditional Holy Thursday procession is taking place inside the church with out public attendance this year due to restrictions imposed to contain the spread of the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

JERUSALEM (AP) — Christians are commemorating Jesus’ crucifixion without the solemn church services or emotional processions of past years, marking Good Friday in a world locked down by the coronavirus pandemic.

The chanting of a small group of clerics inside Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher echoed faintly through the heavy wooden doors, as a few people stopped and kneeled outside to pray. The centuries-old church, built on the site where Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and rose from the dead, is usually packed with pilgrims and tourists.

Later, four monks in brown robes and blue surgical masks prayed at the stations of the cross along the Via Dolorosa, the ancient route through the Old City where Jesus is believed to have carried the cross before his execution at the hands of the Romans. It runs past dozens of souvenir shops, cafes and hostels, nearly all of which are closed.

In ordinary times, tens of thousands of pilgrims from around the world retrace Jesus’ steps in the Holy Week leading up to Easter. But this year, flights are grounded and religious sites in the Holy Land are closed as authorities try to prevent the spread of the virus.

James Joseph, a Christian pilgrim from Detroit dubbed “the Jesus guy” because he wears robes and goes about barefoot, lives near the Church of the Holy Sepulcher year-round. On Friday morning, he had the plaza outside to himself. He said Good Friday has special meaning this year.

“The crucifixion is the saddest thing possible, and he felt what we feel right now,” he said. “But thanks be to God. … He rose from the dead and changed the world on Easter.”

The new virus causes mild to moderate symptoms in most patients, and the vast majority recover. But it is highly contagious and can be spread by those who appear healthy. It can cause severe illness and death in some patients, particularly the old and infirm.

In Rome, the torch-lit Way of the Cross procession at the Colosseum is a highlight of Holy Week, drawing large crowds of pilgrims, tourists and locals. It’s been canceled this year, along with all other public gatherings in Italy, which is battling one of the worst outbreaks.

The virus has killed more than 18,000 people in Italy and nearly 100,000 worldwide, according to data gathered by Johns Hopkins University.

Instead of presiding over the Way of the Cross procession, Pope Francis led a Good Friday ceremony in St. Peter’s Square without the public.

Ten people — five from the Vatican’s health office and five from a prison in Padua, in northern Italy, where infections are particularly widespread — were to participate in the procession, which will circle several times around the obelisk in St. Peter’s Square.

On display in the square will be a wooden crucifix, famed for being carried in a procession during the plague that ravaged Rome in the early 16th century.

In Spain, also hit especially hard by the virus, Good Friday is typically marked with celebrations. People traditionally fill the streets to watch processions of religious brotherhoods carrying heavy, elaborately decorated platforms bearing statues of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary.

There will be no festivities this year, as the country battles an outbreak that has claimed more than 15,000 lives. Many churches are instead holding services online.

In Paris, a ceremony closed to the public was held in the charred and gutted interior of Notre Dame Cathedral, which was nearly destroyed by fire a year ago.

Archbishop Michel Aupetit and three other clergymen wore hard hats as they entered the damaged cathedral before taking them off for the ceremony. Standing before a large cross and beneath a gaping hole in the roof, they sang, prayed and venerated a crown of thorns that survived the flames.

The bishop said the ceremony, which was broadcast live, showed that “life is still here,” even as the pandemic is “spreading death and paralyzing us.”

In the United States, the Good Friday fast typically observed by Catholics was taken up by some in other denominations as a means to connect more deeply with their faith during difficult times.

“The savior himself declared that certain things go not out but by prayer and fasting,” said Russell Nelson, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as he called for a worldwide day of fasting and prayer on Good Friday to help bring relief from the pandemic.

Members of the Utah-based faith widely known as the Mormon church normally go without food and drink one day a month in a practice they believe prepares people to receive God’s blessings. They do it more often in times of crisis.

Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, held a national prayer that was streamed online.

“God gave his own son for us, so we know that he will deliver us from this evil of the coronavirus,” Gomez said.

President Donald Trump participated in a pre-Easter blessing at the White House alongside Maryland-based Pentecostal Bishop Harry Jackson, who prayed for “this plague to pass over.”

The holy day took on a different tone in other Catholic nations, from Poland — where priests at a Warsaw church took confession from the faithful in a parking lot — to the Philippines, where churchgoers have been told to stay home as they remember Jesus’ suffering.

For Josille Sabsal, it’s a test of faith. The 30-year-old Catholic missionary tried to replicate an altar in her Manila home by setting up a laptop, a crucifix and small statues of Jesus and the Virgin Mary on a table.

“I miss that moment in church when you say, ‘Peace be with you,’ to complete strangers and they smile back,” she said.

___

Schor reported from New York. Associated Press writers Frances D’Emilio in Rome, Sergio Rodrigo in Aguilar de la Frontera, Spain, John Leicester in Paris, Jim Gomez in Manila, Vanessa Gera in Warsaw, Darlene Superville in Washington and Brady McCombs in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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