The Israeli government announced today, May 20th, that houses of worship will be allowed to reopen, with up to 50 people in the building, maintaining two meters’ distance between worshippers, as well as the appointment of a corona official for the house of prayer and the mandatory wearing of masks. These new guidelines will be in place through June 3, 2020.
Last week the outdoor Western wall plaza reopened to the public with strict social distancing rules allowing up to 300 worshippers at any one time, followed by hotels, schools and businesses along with restaurants that serving carryout only.
On March 25, 2020 the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was shuttered for the first time in living memory due to the coronavirus pandemic and it has remained closed for two months, along with other places of worship including synagogues and mosques.
Travelujah spoke with Archibishop Pierbattista Pizzabella about the current situation pertaining to the reopening of the holy sites for visitors as well as the prospect of welcoming pilgrims to the Holy Land in the near future
Travelujah: Do you have an approximate date as to when the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and Church of Nativity will reopen as well as other Franciscan sites (Tabgha, Capernaum, etc)
Archibishop Pierbattista Pizzabella: Presently, we do not have specific or approximate dates relative to the re-opening of the Churches and Holy Sites for visitation. We expect to hear something specific next week.
Travelujah: How are the Christian communities in the Holy Land dealing with the impact of corona and their holy sites?
Archibishop Pierbattista Pizzabella: The various institutions of Christian communities in the Holy Land struggle very much to operate effectively, to sustain schools and employees’ salaries due to many families who are unable to pay tuition fees. Additionally, requests for assistance to the poor and needy have exploded and the supply is minuscule in the face of the demand. As elsewhere, the impact on business closures and movement restrictions has had devastating effects on families, individuals, and businesses. While there is a phased easing of movement restrictions, and COVID-19-related deaths are declining, government officials under pressure, reopened schools, and some businesses, as well as relaxing some movement restrictions coupled with numerical limitations on gatherings, religious and others. Despite initial easing, many parents remain concerned about school re-openings, having been bombarded with fear-generating rhetoric that the virus will not go away without a vaccine.
Pilgrimages and tourism are mainstays of the economy in the Holy Land. Both have been shattered by the pandemic. A total halt to both has left thousands of hotel workers, travel agencies, pilgrim/tour guides unemployed, overwhelmed, and desperate. The consequent inability to pay rent and domestic utilities bills has severely increased family and individual related anxieties and problems. Though there is a gradual easing of government restrictions, the long-term effect of the lockdown and closures on individuals, businesses, employment, and lifestyle remains unanswered.
Travelujah: What changes (if any) are being made in terms of access, and procedures?
Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzabella: As every country’s lockdown is different, initial restriction and lockdown guidelines for our churches in Israel and Palestine lay in the hands of the respective government leaders. Presently, Church leaders are in discussions among themselves, in preparation for meetings with government officials towards resolving terms of access and procedures. Upon mutual agreement, the governments will decide the terms of access and procedures.
Travelujah: How will the churches be operating differently (if at all) once they reopen?
Archibishop Pierbattista Pizzabella: Initially, there will be a certain caution and apprehension until people are accustomed to gathering in assembly, as before. Occasionally, we hear people expressing their desire to return to the pre-COVID-19 existence. Perhaps, that will never happen and, therefore, ways of thinking and related expectations will require examination and adjustment to fit the next unknown stage.
Travelujah: What do you say to people who are thinking of coming to the Holy Land on a pilgrimage next year and are worried about health post corona?
Archibishop Pierbattista Pizzabella: Much remains unknown about post-corona pilgrimage operations. Guidelines for pilgrimages and tourism will be determined by the Israeli Tourism ministry and are not yet revealed. If one is worried about health, it is best to resolve the worry before travel and then, in compliance with Israel’s guidelines, come without hesitation on pilgrimage. A factor that will also contribute to pilgrimages is airline companies’ reports on necessary social distancing and mask-wearing on civilian aircraft, thereby limiting passenger numbers and increasing ticket costs.