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In Jerusalem's Old City, The Devout Adjust To Worship In The Coronavirus Era

A worshiper prays outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional site of Jesus' tomb. Its wooden doors are shut now to deter the spread of COVID-19, and only clergy may perform the daily prayer rituals inside.
Daniel Estrin NPR
A worshiper prays outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional site of Jesus' tomb. Its wooden doors are shut now to deter the spread of COVID-19, and only clergy may perform the daily prayer rituals inside.

"The air over Jerusalem is saturated with prayers and dreams like the air over industrial cities," wrote Yehuda Amichai, one of the city's beloved poets, in 1980. "It's hard to breathe."

Now it's hard to pray.

In the historic walled Old City, the beating heart of a place sacred to millions around the world, a second wave of the coronavirus has challenged devout communities to rethink how to pray safely. This spring, Jerusalem's revered religious sites closed partially or fully as prayer gatherings were blamed for some infections. Now Israel permits houses of prayer to operate under restrictions.


New customs accompany old worship rituals: a grid of prayer quadrants at the Western Wall. Only clergy permitted at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. "Place your carpet here" stickers on the floor of the Al-Aqsa Mosque grounds to keep worshipers distanced.

Here are some of the newest rituals surrounding Muslim, Christian and Jewish prayer in Jerusalem's Old City.

Bring your own carpet

The Al-Aqsa Mosque, where tradition says the Prophet Muhammad journeyed to heaven, reopened in late May after Muslim authorities closed it to the public for more than two months — its first lengthy closure since the Crusaders captured it in 1099.

Worshipers are now asked to perform the wudu, the ritual washing of parts of the body, at home. Volunteers at the mosque provide hand sanitizer and masks. Participants are also asked to bring prayer carpets from home, to avoid touching the carpeted floor inside the mosque building.


"I have never used as many small carpets as nowadays," said Mustafa Abu Sway, a member of the mosque advisory council, sitting next to his yellow carpet outside the mosque. "It just goes to the washing machine, because you don't know what it has been contaminated with."

Israel restricts prayer gatherings in Jerusalem — initially capped at 50 worshipers, then 19, and now 10 — but Al-Aqsa is hosting several thousand every Friday for the main prayers.

That's partly to maintain a Palestinian presence at a compound also revered by Jews as the site where the Biblical temple once stood. Orthodox and right-wing Israeli Jewish activists are increasingly paying politically sensitive visits to the mosque grounds and lobbying to allow Jewish prayer there, which Palestinians see as hostile efforts to seize control at the site.

Muslim officials also believe they can hold prayers safely by spilling over into the mosque's vast outdoor complex. Stickers on the floor show worshipers how to keep spaced at a healthy distance, with partial success.

"It would be a pity if everything is shut down. I mean, you need a place, a source of hope, a source of light, to invigorate people and give them a break," said Abu Sway.

A recent sermon implored worshipers not to spread false rumors about the pandemic and to take it seriously. After prayers on a scorching Friday, thousands poured out of the Old City holding prayer carpets on their heads and refreshing frozen pops in their hands.

Celebrating Mass on Facebook Live

Nearby, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional site of Jesus' crucifixion, is closed due to the pandemic — except to the clergy who continue their daily rituals inside, behind its wooden doors.

A short walk away, St. Saviour's Monastery hosts Jerusalem's main Roman Catholic Mass, with a small women's choir and no congregation onsite.

For months, Father Amjad Sabbara held a series of mini-Masses, with 19 participants each, so everyone in his Palestinian parish could attend a socially distanced Mass at least once a month. Now, with a second wave of infections afflicting Jerusalem's Palestinian neighborhoods, congregants watch from home on Facebook Live.

"It's better, you know, for the protection of the people and the families," Sabbara says. "It's better to stay in their homes. And in this way, we can pray together."

It's in their homes where his congregants need him most. Sabbara has set up a special counseling hotline and says he's getting a lot of calls about family tensions from being cooped up at home during the pandemic.

On a recent Sunday, he offered his homily in Arabic and raised a golden goblet and round communion wafer, all in front of a web camera.

Somehow, two devoted churchgoers managed to slip into the closed, cavernous church. They were allowed to stay.

No kissing the Torah scroll

Jewish prayers continue at the Western Wall, a remnant of the ancient Biblical temple compound. But the outdoor prayer plaza is now divided into quadrants designed to keep worship groups small.

Nearby, at the Ramban Synagogue in the Old City's Jewish quarter, longtime elementary school teacher Yehezkel Cahn, 71, oversees the morning prayers — for several dozen worshipers sitting six feet apart in designated seats — as if the synagogue were his classroom. He's drawn cartoons with handwritten instructions: No wearing masks on your chin. No turning on the ceiling fan.

"Because the corona goes from his nose to my mouth," Cahn says.

Another sign reads: "Don't try to be a wise guy! You have no permission to use the prayer books of the synagogue."

Cahn wears blue surgical gloves as he cradles the Torah scroll, turning his back as he passes a veteran white-haired worshiper. He says the man often forgets the synagogue's new health rule against kissing the scroll, a traditional sign of respect performed by touching the scroll and then kissing one's own hand as it is paraded around the congregation.

"I don't want him to kiss," Cahn says.

Cahn repeatedly looks at his watch, to usher in three shifts of morning worshipers in 45-minute slots. He's keeping the prayer groups small. Inside the synagogue, he allows no more than 10 men. That's the minimum quorum required by Orthodox Judaism for Torah readings and certain prayers — and the government's latest restriction on indoor gatherings is 10 people. Whoever doesn't get a seat indoors prays in the courtyard.

As with efforts by Jerusalem's other major faiths, it's an attempt to protect worshipers' safety during the pandemic while permitting the uninterrupted rhythm of religious life.

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