Jerusalem’s Holy Sepulchre reopens but guidelines for public access still under review

Yesterday clerics from the three Churches that manage the Holy Sepulchre were able to visit the church, which remains closed to the public. For the Custody of the Holy Land, the three Churches are working out the public safety guidelines, which will include a closed number, social distancing, and safety measures.

Jerusalem (AsiaNews) – After the official announcement, the Holy Sepulchre was supposed to reopen to the public on Sunday after a long hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the restrictions imposed after the lockdown was lifted have made it virtually impossible to visit one of Christianity’s greatest symbolic venues.

Only a small number of clergymen from the Latin, Armenian, and Greek Orthodox Churches were allowed to visit the church, whilst worshippers were left disappointed at the entrance.

Brother Alessandro Caspoli, communication director of the Custody of the Holy Land, gave AsiaNews the official explanation for the limited access, namely "organisational and logistical issues" among the three Churches. To solve them Church leaders “are meeting to agree on guidelines that would gradually regulate access, social distancing, and maximum number of people allowed inside.”

The Greek Orthodox, Armenians and the Custody “should strike a deal in a few days to allow access to the holy site,” said Br Caspoli. This will come with “precise guidelines such as the ban on kissing or getting too close” to the icons, statues or religious symbols. The State of Israel has set “a 50-person restriction for indoor spaces,” he added.

A few days ago, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilus III, the Custos of the Holy Land Brother Francesco Patton and the Armenian Patriarch Nourhan Manougian issued a statement announcing the reopening of the Holy Sepulchre on 24 May.

In reality, Church leaders and religious officials have always had access to the place of worship, which was off limits to all other visitors, including worshippers, pilgrims and tourists.

For safety reasons, “the Basilica will be accessible only to those who have no fever or symptoms of infection and are wearing suitable face coverings,” reads the aforementioned statement. “It will also be necessary to keep a minimal distance of 2 meters”.  

According to the Times of Israel, some worshippers gathered in front of the Holy Sepulchre hoping to enter and pray but Church authorities prevented them.

Although the church is officially open, “access to it will be done gradually according to agreed guidelines,” said Br Caspoli. In fact, the church “was never closed, because the friars and clerics have remained active inside. Now the question is laying down some rules, and checking how they work.”

Before the COVID-19 emergency, due to the "great number of pilgrims,” people queued up “for hours" to get inside the Holy Sepulchre and other holy sites, “even in early February when the number of visitors drops considerably.”

Br Caspoli expects large number of “pilgrims to return to the Holy Land by next Christmas, especially from abroad. Some agencies are already booking ahead. However, everything remains linked to the local and global evolution of the pandemic.”