Pope urges solidarity on an Easter of both joy, virus sorrow

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis called for global solidarity Sunday to confront the “epochal challenge” posed by the coronavirus pandemic as he and Christians around the world celebrated the joy of Easter in unusually solitary and somber circumstances due to bans on public gatherings and stay-at-home orders.

With most churches closed to their congregations and police checkpoints set up in Europe to enforce the restrictions, families that normally would attend morning church services wearing their Easter best and then join friends and relatives for traditional meals generally stayed home.

People cut off from their faith communities and loved ones had the option of watching Easter services on TV or online, or in a handful of cases attending drive-through services with the windows of their vehicles rolled up. A few lucky Rome residents attended church from their balconies overlooking a church where a priest celebrated Mass on the roof.

“We feel close to each other despite this distance,” Luca Rosati, a Santa Emerenziana church parishioner said of the unusual open-air Easter service. “We can experience from here what we normally would experience inside the church, as a community.”

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At Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where many Christians believe Jesus was crucified and entombed, Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa urged the faithful not to be discouraged.

“The message of Easter is that life, despite all, will prevail,” Pizzaballa said during a Mass attended by a few clerics while the streets of the surrounding Old City stood devoid of pilgrims and vendors.

At the Vatican, Francis celebrated Mass in a largely empty St. Peter’s Basilica. A handful of faithful sat one per pew, and the choir’s Kyrie hymn echoed off the marble floors.

Normally, fresh tulips and orchids would paint the promenade of St. Peter’s Square in a riot of color on Easter to underscore the day’s message of life and rebirth following Christ’s crucifixion.

This year, however, the cobblestoned piazza was bare and ringed by police barricades to block the tens of thousands who would normally flock there to hear the pope’s noontime “Urbi et Orbi” speech and blessing “to the city and the world.”

Francis instead stayed indoors, underscoring the solitude and sorrow of this Easter amid the pandemic that has infected more than 1.8 million people, including more than 112,000 who had died as of Sunday, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally.

In his address, Francis urged political leaders to provide hope and opportunity to the millions of people the worldwide crisis has made newly jobless. He appealed in particular to the European Union to step up to the “epochal challenge” posed by virus, which has ravaged Italy, Spain and other European countries.

“After the Second World War, this beloved continent was able to rise again, thanks to a concrete spirit of solidarity that enabled it to overcome the rivalries of the past,” Francis said. “This is not a time for self-centeredness because the challenge we are facing is shared by all, without distinguishing between persons.”

He urged the faithful to pray for the sick, the dead and the elderly confined alone. And broadening his horizons, he called for sanctions relief, debt forgiveness and ceasefires to calm conflicts and financial crises around the globe.

The desolate scene of Francis’ Mass was repeated elsewhere in the world. In South Korea, where one virus outbreak was tied to a church sect, services were largely held online.

A small number of masked faithful attended a service at Seoul’s Yoido Full Gospel Church, one of the biggest churches in South Korea. They were seated apart from each other, and choir members sang from behind face masks.

Across Africa, many Christians followed services broadcast on television and radio. In Nigeria’s capital, a Catholic Mass was celebrated in Lagos’ empty cathedral, while Congo braced for a battle with both COVID-19 and an ongoing Ebola outbreak.

Because church gatherings were banned in Congo, Beni resident Jeannot Sikivahwa said he listened to a preacher on the radio deliver an Easter Sunday sermon about both Ebola and the coronavirus.

“He said that we must protect ourselves from these two epidemics plaguing us here in Beni,” Sikivahwa told The Associated Press. “It’s my first time to have this holiday under such confinement.”

Since the Church of England shuttered its churches, the Anglican archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, conducted an Easter service from his kitchen in London. The spiritual leader of 85 million Anglicans worldwide, Welby delivered his sermon in full robes behind a makeshift altar on his dining room table.

“Welcome to the kitchen of our home on Easter Day,” he said.

In Lebanon, home to the largest percentage of Christians in the Arab world, Cardinal Bechara Rai urged the faithful to abide by virus lockdown measures even as Lebanon endures its worst economic crisis in decades.

“We are praying so that Lebanese officials work together in the spirit of collaboration to revive Lebanon economically, financially and socially,” Rai said in an almost empty church in Bkerki, northeast of Beirut, the seat of the Maronite Church he heads.

The church would normally be packed with people marking Easter, including the Lebanese president, prime minister and parliament speaker.

In New Zealand, Catholic bishops wrote a special pastoral letter to worshipers stuck at home, acknowledging the stresses and uncertainties of an Easter like no other but urging the faithful to take comfort in getting to spend time with immediate family.

“This time has proved to be a reflective time enabling us to refocus or revision ourselves and how we live,” the letter said.

For Orthodox Christians, Sunday marked the start of Holy Week. Palm Sunday services were held in similarly barren churches.

Pope Tawadros II, the spiritual leader of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Christians, celebrated in a largely empty Monastery of Saint Pishoy, in a desert valley west of the capital, Cairo. The church made the prayers available on its Facebook page. The Coptic Orthodox Church is one the world’s oldest Christian communities.

The Russian Orthodox Church said it would hold Easter services in Moscow next Sunday without church goers present, citing an order from the city’s chief epidemiologist prohibiting mass gatherings.

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AP writers from around the world contributed.

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