JERUSALEM (AP) — A small group of Franciscan monks and Roman Catholic faithful took to the streets of Jerusalem’s Christian Quarter in the Old City Sunday to distribute olive branches after the traditional Palm Sunday procession was cancelled due to restrictions imposed to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
Elsewhere in the region, Iran, which is dealing with the worst outbreak in the Mideast, announced plans to allow some businesses to reopen later this month even as the death toll continued to climb.
Lebanon reopened its airport to allow citizens stranded overseas to return home, while churches that had remained open for Palm Sunday even during the country’s 1975-1990 civil war were mostly empty.
A top Pakistani official also called on the United Nations and other wealthier countries to send emergency food and medical assistance to hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees locked down in camps in the border region.
Palm Sunday celebrations start the Holy Week leading up to Easter. Worshipers in Jerusalem traditionally carry palm fronds and olive branches and march from the top of the Mount of Olives into the Old City.
While thousands of pilgrims usually participate in the march, this year was limited to a handful of participants. Clerics and faithful went door to door often throwing the branches to Christians looking on from their balconies.
“This year because of the new situation we are trying to come to all the Christians in our Christian Quarter to bring these branches of olives, the sign of new hope,” said the Rev. Sandro Tomasevic, a Catholic clergyman at the Latin Parish of Jerusalem.
Palm Sunday commemorates Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and is the start of the church’s most solemn week, which includes the Good Friday reenactment of Jesus’ crucifixion and death and his resurrection on Easter.
In Israel, more than 8,000 people have contracted the coronavirus and 46 have died. In the West Bank, nearly 200 cases have been reported, including a large outbreak in the biblical town of Bethlehem.
The outbreak has forced church officials to close churches to the public and scale back religious observances throughout the week. Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the top Catholic clergyman in the Holy Land, held a small, closed service at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the site where Christians believe Jesus was crucified and resurrected.
The Israeli military began an operation in the hard-hit central city of Bnei Brak, helping to distribute food and medicine. The government last week put Bnei Brak, home to a large population of ultra-Orthodox religious Jews, under a near closure after an outbreak ravaged the city. Israel’s ultra-Orthodox population has been disproportionately infected after religious leaders played down or ignored warnings to maintain social distancing early in the crisis.
The coronavirus causes mild to moderate symptoms in most patients, who recover within a few weeks. But it is highly contagious and can be spread by people showing no symptoms. It can cause serious illness and death in some patients, particularly the elderly and those with underlying health issues.
Iran has been the hardest-hit nation across the region. Iran state TV reported that an additional 151 people had died, pushing the death toll to 3,603 with over 58,000 confirmed cases.
But the country’s president, Hassan Rouhani, announced that low-risk businesses will be allowed to resume their activities in Tehran on April 18. Businesses in other provinces will begin a week earlier, on April 11, he said during a meeting Saturday. He said government offices would also be able to boost staffing, from one-third to two-thirds of their work force, beginning April 11.
Rouhani said the decision would not contradict a stay-at-home policy and that businesses must still observe health restrictions ordered by the government. High-risk businesses, like pools, gyms and shopping malls will remain closed, he said.
In Lebanon, meanwhile, a jet carrying more than 70 Lebanese citizens who had been stuck in Saudi Arabia after Beirut’s international airport closed nearly three weeks arrived in Lebanon. It marked the beginning of flights that aim to return thousands of Lebanese from around the world. Three more flights are scheduled to arrive later Sunday from the United Arab Emirates, Nigeria and Ivory Coast.
Prime Minister Hassan Diab said up to 21,000 people have registered to return home, and the process will take several weeks.
Lebanon has reported 520 cases of coronavirus and 18 deaths since the first case was reported in late February.
Churches were mostly empty for Palm Sunday in the tiny Mediterranean country, which has the largest percentage of Christians in the Middle East. Churches had marked Palm Sunday even during the country’s 15-year civil war that ended in 1990.
In some villages, priests drove in pickup trucks decorated with palm and olive branches to hold mass in the open air, as residents either stood nearby or watched for their balconies.
Nearly a third of Lebanon’s 5 million people are Christians, and the country is the only Arab state with a Christian president.
In Pakistan, the frontier regions minister warned of a dire situation facing the 1.5 million Afghans living as refugees in Pakistan and said the U.N. and other nations must take action. Many are daily wage earners who have been hardest hit by the Pakistan’s countrywide lockdown.
“If Pakistan can roll out a special relief package for Afghan refugees, why can’t the developed nations come to the rescue of the besieged refugees?” said the minister, Shehryar Khan Afridi.
Associated Press writers Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran; Bassem Mroue in Beirut; and Asim Tanvir in Multan, Pakistan contributed to this report.