More than 260 million Orthodox Christians celebrated Easter Sunday, with church leaders urging worshippers to stay at home to avoid spreading the novel coronavirus.
While many watched services online or on television, some sidestepped virus fears and defied restrictions to attend church on the most important date in the Orthodox calendar.
Orthodox Christians, the world’s third largest group of Christian believers, this year celebrate Easter a week after Catholics and Protestants because they follow a different calendar.
Last week’s Easter celebrations took place in empty churches while Pope Francis live-streamed his traditional message from the Vatican as the pandemic that has killed more than 150,000 made mass worship too risky.
Services migrate online or to empty deserts
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, led a liturgy to an empty St. George’s Cathedral in Istanbul. The church ordered services to be closed to the public and broadcast online.
The same decision was taken in Cyprus, Greece, Serbia and North Macedonia as well as in Egypt, where Orthodox Coptic Christians comprise 10-15 percent of the population.
Pope Tawadros II, the spiritual leader of the country’s Copts, held Easter services in an empty monastery in the desert.
The services were held at the Monastery of Saint Pishoy, in a desert valley west of Cairo known as Wadi Natrun. A few clergymen attended the services, which was aired on a Coptic Orthodox television station. The clerics were seen practicing social distancing during the prayers.
The Coptic Orthodox Church, one the world’s oldest Christian communities, decided earlier this month to suspend Easter prayers and celebrations at churches and monasteries because of the spread of the deadly virus.
Lone worshippers visit Jerusalem church
Jerusalem’s Old City is normally packed for Orthodox Easter but was almost deserted at the weekend under Israel’s strict lockdown measures.
The annual Holy Fire ceremony took place behind closed doors in the city’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The flame was then taken to Orthodox countries worldwide.
Only a handful of Eastern Orthodox priests held mass in the church on Sunday, while the square outside was empty apart from a few individual worshippers who came to pray outside.
According to tradition, the Holy Sepulchre stands on the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial.