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In Spain and beyond, Christians prepare to mark Easter in lockdown

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A woman holds up a cross as she tries to follow a statue of Jesus passing by during Holy Week in Caracas, Venezuela, April 8, 2020
A woman holds up a cross as she tries to follow a statue of Jesus passing by during Holy Week in Caracas, Venezuela, April 8, 2020   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos
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In a world locked down by the coronavirus pandemic, Christians are commemorating Jesus' crucifixion without the traditional church services and processions.

The Holy Week leading up to Easter is usually one of the busiest travel periods in Spain, where the streets fill with crowds and religious processions.

But this year, the nation is on lockdown and still counting its victims in the coronavirus pandemic. And churches are turning to modern technology to spread faith without spreading the virus.

"Easter is one the most popular festivities for Catholics here in Spain. For Easter you would have large crowds here waiting to see the procession coming out of the Church. But this time, the doors of all churches in Spain will remain closed," our reporter Jaime Velazquez explains from Madrid.

Spain has been one of the countries hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic, with more than 15,000 deaths and 150,000 infections so far.

Nearly a month ago, the government ordered strict confinement rules nationwide to try to slow the spread of the virus. Spaniards are only allowed to leave home to go buy groceries and walk their dogs. Authorities have made extra calls for people to stay at home during the traditional April break.

Under the lockdown, all Easter processions have been banned. The nation’s churches will stream past events and mass services online, for believers to celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ from their homes.

But many Christians say now is also a time to mourn for COVID-19 victims and pray for patients still fighting for their life.

“It is time to focus our prayers on them... On them and also the health workers and security forces fighting for us,” said Óscar Morales, of the Medinaceli Brotherhood, which is encouraging Christians to bring Easter to social media.

Singing in prayer

Centuries ago, Spaniards prayed to be delivered from the plague. This year, many are praying to be freed from COVID-19. And despite Holy Week processions being cancelled across the country, traditional ''saetas", or flamenco prayers, are still sung in Andalusia from balconies and windows.

"Having the opportunity to express with my moaning, with my singing, what people are feeling, it means the world to me," said flamenco artist Juan Peña.

This year he will have to stay at home, and no procession will pass beneath his window. But he’s not giving up on the tradition. After applauding health workers from his balcony, he will sing his saeta.

“The saeta I want to sing, it is a very famous one, but I have changed it to adapt it to the moment we are living, with coronavirus. It’s a chant to God -- for him to give us a hand, and help us to carry on, to stop the deaths and this pandemic that is whipping the whole world.”

Celebrations disrupted all around the world

Italy, the country with the highest death toll from COVID-19 so far, will also see dramatically different Easter celebrations this year.

Our correspondent Giorgia Orlandi spoke to a priest who will be holding mass on social media.

"After celebrating mass on my own for 3-4 days, I thought let's see if I can share it on Facebook, if anyone will follow it. Well, I was surprised because during the week days there are more people on Facebook, certainly more than the 20, 30 people who usually come to mass,” said Father Franco Semenza.

"I think this is a great thing because you manage to interact, to talk to each other. We are all in need of human relationships and to get in touch with God."

Empty St. Peter's Square

In Rome, the Way of the Cross procession at the Colosseum traditionally draws large crowds of pilgrims, tourists and locals. But it’s been cancelled this year, along with all other public gatherings in the country.

St. Peter’s Square will be eerily empty. Pope Francis will lead a Good Friday ceremony there without the public – instead of presiding over the Way of the Cross procession.

On display in the square will be a wooden crucifix, famed for being carried in a procession during the plague that ravaged Rome in the early 16th century.

The new coronavirus has killed more than 18,000 people so far in Italy and over 100,000 worldwide, according to data gathered by Johns Hopkins University.

Holy Land sites closed to tourists

All around the world, hundreds of millions of Christians will be commemorating Jesus' crucifixion without the solemn church services or emotional processions of past years.

In Jerusalem, for the first time in over a century, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher will be closed for Easter weekend.

In ordinary times, tens of thousands of pilgrims from around the world flock here to retrace Jesus' steps. But this year, flights are grounded and religious sites in the Holy Land are closed as authorities try to prevent the spread of the virus.

Prayers at Notre Dame Cathedral

Although still charred and gutted by the fire that nearly destroyed it a year ago, Notre Dame Cathedral briefly came back to life for Good Friday.

Paris Archbishop Michel Aupetit venerated a crown of thorns that survived the flames that brought down the cathedral's roof and spire

The ceremony was closed to the public amid the nation’s lockdown and also because the structure is not deemed safe for parishioners.