JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, revered in Christian tradition as the site of Jesus’s crucifixion and burial, was closed on Wednesday as a precaution against the coronavirus.
The closure, initially for a week, followed a meeting between Israeli police and church leaders, said Wadie Abu Nassar, spokesperson of the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land, after the Israeli government announced tighter restrictions to curb the spread of the virus.
“The initial understanding is that this order is valid for one week, although nobody knows how long this crisis will take,” he said.
Adeeb Joudeh, a Palestinian whose family holds one of the keys to the church, confirmed the decision on Facebook.
The Holy Sepulchre lies in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem’s walled Old City. A church was first built there in the 4th century under Constantine the Great, the Roman emperor who converted to Christianity.
The Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches share custody of the building. Others, including Copts, Ethiopian and Syrian Orthodox, also hold services there.
The closure comes in the build-up to Easter, the most important festival in the Christian calendar, which Roman Catholics this year celebrate on April 12. Thousands of pilgrims and tourists would normally flock to the city, whose streets are now virtually deserted.
Greek Orthodox celebrations are held a week later, including the traditional ceremony of the Holy Fire, a colourful event symbolizing the resurrection of Jesus.
Abu Nassar said that, “if, God forbid, this situation goes on too long and it enters into the season of Easter”, church authorities hoped to find arrangements to celebrate within the Israeli government’s restrictions.
Such is the importance of the site, he said, that the denominations would try to ensure that “celebrations and prayers will continue,” by small groups of clerics abiding by the rules.