Singing hymns through masks, Christians mark pandemic Easter

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Pope Francis leaves after celebrating Easter Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica at The Vatican Sunday, April 4, 2021, during the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic. (Filippo Monteforte/Pool photo via AP)

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Christianity’s most joyous feast day was celebrated worldwide with the faithful far apart in pews and singing choruses of “Hallelujah” through face coverings on a second Easter Sunday marked by pandemic precautions.

From Protestant churches in South Korea to St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, many worshippers followed national or local regulations aimed at preventing transmission of the coronavirus. In some European countries, citizens lined up on Easter for their turn to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

In the Lombardy region of Italy, where the pandemic first erupted in the West, a hospital gave a traditional dove-shaped Easter cake symbolizing peace to each person waiting to get vaccinated. Many who came were in their 80s and accompanied by adult children. 

A soccer team in Lyon, France, opened its stadium as a vaccination center for the long holiday weekend. Some 9,000 people were expected to receive their shots there over three days as the French government tries to speed up the pace of vaccinations amid a fresh outbreak of infections.

In the Holy Land, air travel restrictions and quarantine regulations prevented foreign pilgrims from flocking to religious sites in Jerusalem during Holy Week, which culminates in Easter celebrations. Pope Francis lamented that the pandemic has prevented some churchgoers from attending services.

In St. Peter’s Basilica, the 200 or so faithful who were allowed to attend looked lost in the cavernous cathedral. Normally, thousands would attend the Mass celebrated by Francis, and a crowd would gather outside in St. Peter’s Square, with more than 100,000 sometimes assembling to receive his Easter blessing afterward. 

But this year, like last year, crowds are banned from gathering in Italy and at the Vatican. Francis delivered his noon Easter address on world affairs from inside the basilica, using the occasion to appeal anew for the international community to ensure vaccines reach the poorest countries. 

The pontiff sounded weary as he noted that pandemic worries and protective measures have crimped religious holiday traditions in many places and kept some faithful from public worship. 

“We pray that these restrictions, as well as all restrictions on freedom of worship and religion worldwide, may be lifted and everyone be allowed to pray and praise God freely,” Francis said.

In Syria, where a national vaccination program has yet to begin, churchgoers in the Lady of Damascus Church prayed for a way out of the economic and political crisis, only worsened by the pandemic.

“We came to the church for Easter so we get rid of the pandemic that we are in,” said Bassam Assaf. “Of course, we are not scared of coronavirus. It is the reality that we face, but it cannot stop us from coming and praying to God to take us out of this ordeal and help the world.”

The Easter celebrations offered a respite from the grim realities of war and COVID-19 in Syria.

“We know that outside the country, everyone is in a lockdown and closing down. But for us, this celebration is joyous. We can’t stop everything. We need to be happy,” said worshipper Jimmy Babek.

A service at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Old City of Jerusalem was celebrated by the senior Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land. That is the site many Christians hold is where Jesus was crucified, buried and rose from the dead. 

Israel’s successful vaccination campaign has allowed reopening of many places, including religious sites.

The pandemic kept Seville’s Brotherhood of the Holy Resurrection from sending its ornate Easter float, bearing a towering statue of Jesus, through the streets of the Spanish city. Instead, the Brotherhood posted videos and old photos from their last procession, two years ago.

Some Pentecostal Christians in South Africa canceled plans for a three-day retreat starting on Good Friday. On the hills overlooking Soweto, a Johannesburg township, Apostolic Pentecostals gathered in small groups Sunday to mark Easter. The pandemic, with night-time curfew, made the retreat impossible.

In South Korea, Yoido Full Gospel Church, the country’s biggest Protestant church, allowed only about 2,000 people to attend Easter service, or about 17% of the capacity of the main building. Masked worshippers sang hymns, clapped and prayed as the service was broadcast online and by Christian TV channels. Seoul’s Myeongdong Catholic Cathedral limited Mass attendance to 20% capacity and livestreamed the service.

Intent on tamping down weeks of surging infections, the Italian government ordered people to stay home for the three-day weekend except for essential errands. Premier Mario Draghi’s government did grant a concession — one visit to family or friends per day in residents’ home regions over the weekend, which includes the national holiday on Monday.

Italy permits religious services in the pandemic if capacity is limited and masks are worn. But early on, the predominantly Roman Catholic country’s many churches were open only for individual prayer. 

With Italy under a 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew, churches moved up the traditional starting times of Saturday night Easter vigil services by a couple of hours. Church bells summoned people unusually early, tolling before sunset in some places. 

A similar scenario played out in France, which is reeling from a rise in COVID-19 cases that are overtaking hospitals. Some churches moved traditional midnight services to just before dawn Sunday because of a nationwide 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew.

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