JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Franciscan friars wearing surgical masks and gloves made house calls in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, delivering olive branches to Christians who are self-isolating as a precaution against the coronavirus.
One of the friars used a loud-hailer in the streets of the walled Old City to summon people to their front doors and windows, where they received branches and blessings.
In a solemn ceremony that would usually have been attended by thousands of worshippers, Roman Catholic church leaders then held a special prayer service on the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem's Old City and the Golden Dome of the Rock.
"Today everything is empty and silent and it's very odd, it's very sad," said Acting Latin Patriarch Of Jerusalem, Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, who presided over the ceremony.
The beginning of the Holy Week leading to Easter, Palm Sunday commemorates Jesus' arrival in Jerusalem. Scripture speaks of his supporters scattering palm fronds in his path, an act often replicated today with branches of other native trees.
Jerusalem's churches, like Muslim and Jewish places of worship, are closed to the public amid efforts to contain the coronavirus. That has prompted the faithful to find alternatives to group prayer in a month in which the festivals of Passover, Easter and Ramadan will be marked in close succession.
At the Vatican, Pope Francis marked Palm Sunday in an empty St. Peter's Basilica, urging people living through the pandemic not to be so concerned with what they lack but how they can ease the suffering of others.
(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Mark Potter and Frances Kerry)