March 21, 2020 / 5:56 PM / 16 days ago

Jerusalem's Sepulchre church tells visitors to keep distance due to coronavirus

FILE PHOTO: A boy lights candles in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City March 9, 2020. Picture taken March 9, 2020. REUTERS/Ammar Awad/File Photo

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Leaders of Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, revered as the site of Jesus’s crucifixion and burial, urged worshippers on Saturday to maintain social distancing to help fight the coronavirus.

Church leaders at the ancient holy site in Jerusalem’s walled Old City called on visitors to “avoid any act of devotion that might include physical contact such as touching and kissing the stones, touching icons, vestments and the personnel.”

In a statement, the church said worshippers should not enter in groups of more than 10 and ought to maintain a distance of at least two meters between each other.

“The Holy Sepulchre is the ultimate place of hope. Hope that faith will defeat doubt, light will defeat darkness and life will triumph over death,” the statement added.

With the usually busy Easter holiday approaching, the coronavirus crisis has led to a sharp decline in the number of visitors to the Holy Land. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a particular favorite among pilgrims and tourists.

Other sacred sites have ordered similar precautions, including the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth and in Bethlehem, revered as Jesus’s birthplace, the Church of the Nativity has shut down entirely.

Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third holiest site, has limited Friday prayers to the open outdoor areas of the mosque compound - one of the most sensitive spots in the Middle East - which Muslims refer to as the Noble Sanctuary and Jews call the Temple Mount.

At the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism where Jews are allowed to pray, religious authorities have instructed the faithful to refrain from holding mass prayers and from kissing the stones of the ancient wall which abuts the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary complex.

Israel has reported 883 confirmed cases of coronavirus to date and one death. The Palestinians have confirmed 52 cases in the occupied West Bank and none in the Gaza Strip.

Reporting by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Helen Popper

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