The strict social distancing measures and the governmental closure of churches to the faithful have led to an increase in the use of technology to transmit church services, as leaders are calling on their parish members to turn their homes into churches.
Attention is focused on Jerusalem, where Passion Week (Holy Week) is celebrated with the carrying of the cross along the 12 stations on the Via Dolorosa in the Old City of Jerusalem, the Good Friday services, the Holy Fire on Saturday, ending with Easter Sunday. The Via Dolorosa is a processional route in the Old City of Jerusalem, believed to be the path that Jesus walked on the way to his crucifixion.
Father Issa Musleh, spokesperson for the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, told Al-Monitor that services will be held as usual, albeit with a very small number of priests and no worshippers. “We will use multimedia to transmit the services,” he said.
The one difficult problem will be how the Holy Fire or Holy Light can be transmitted around the world. Orthodox faithful believe that a special flame miraculously lights inside the site of the holy grave of Jesus.
Musleh said the light coming out of the Holy Sepulcher on the Saturday before Orthodox Easter will be transmitted as usual to the entire world. “We have made arrangements with the Palestinian and Jordanian governments and with the Israeli Ministry of Religious Affairs to make sure that a small number of people are allowed to pass on the light. Some Orthodox majority countries are sending airplanes to pick up the light, and the Israelis are coordinating the effort,” he said.
While Catholic and Protestant churches celebrate Easter on April 12, the majority of Christians in Jordan and Palestine have agreed to unify the holidays by celebrating Christmas on Dec. 25 and Easter according to the Orthodox calendar. The only exception is Jerusalem and Bethlehem, where Orthodox Easter is celebrated on April 19.
Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant leaders in Jordan and Palestine have adhered to the government directives and kept the church services to the minimum number of priests, using videoconferencing and television broadcasts to communicate with believers.
Father Rifat Bader, director of the Amman-based Catholic Center for Studies and Media, told Al-Monitor that the center’s flagship website, abouna.org, has seen a huge increase in viewership. “The number of viewers and engagements has skyrocketed. We have reached 2.8 million viewers these days, which matches only the record we hit during the visit of the pope to Jordan,” said Bader.
He says that the website and other Catholic media outlets will carry Easter services led by Bishop of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem William Shomali in the Sweifieh church in Amman. “In compliance with government regulations, a small number of priests will attend so that they can reply to the bishop as part of our liturgy,” Bader added.
Bader says that the virtual services have had some interesting effects. “Because we are abiding by the unification of the holidays, we are seeing that the virtual services are also unifying Christians as well. We are following up and watching services by other churches, and they are following up on our services,” he said.
Bader noted that for Passion Week, the different biblical verses are read by different Catholic priests. “We are asking priests from different Latin churches in Jordan, Palestine, as well as Arab priests in Italy, to each read a verse that matches one of the stations of the cross.”
But church services alone are not satisfying the needs of people. The Catholic-run Caritas humanitarian organization is providing food parcels to the needy as part of the Hope Program, and church leaders are trying to engage with the faithful to answer their questions and attend to their spiritual needs. “People are afraid and are asking us to pray for them. Youth are calling us to say they are worried about their sick parents, and many are inquiring if we are at the end of times,” Bader said.
While the virtual church is innovative, Bader said that as a result of the approval of the pope, parishioners are encouraged to partake in virtual communions. “We are encouraging them to set up a table at home with a cross on it, to burn incense, and when the priest is having communion, that they also give themselves communion while repeating the words of the priest.”
Some of the older priests are having a hard time dealing with technology, says Bader, adding, “They all have cell phones but need better equipment to be able to transmit and receive video and audio.”
Rev. Danny Awad, pastor of the Baraka Presbyterian Church in Bethlehem, told Al-Monitor that the church has been physically closed since the beginning of March, but church services have continued virtually. “We have used Facebook and Zoom to transmit our services and have seen a marked increase in attendance. We have seen more than triple the number in people attending church virtually compared to physical attendance. Our slogan is ‘Stay at home and the church will come to you.’ We tell our members that your home is your church just like it was in the first church as related to us in the Book of Acts.”
While his church has been active providing for the physical needs of his congregation and others suffering due to the absence of work for 35 days, Awad says that they have also tried to provide for the spiritual needs of the believers. “Our belief is strong, and we know that after Passion Week, the path of the crucifixion, comes the dawn of the resurrection on Easter Sunday.”
By: Daoud Kuttab