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Churches move online, fight to stay open for Easter amid pandemic

Church pews are empty of parishioners due to the Coronavirus pandemic while photographers take photos of Cardinal Timothy Dolan who offers Easter Sunday Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City. Photo by John Angelillo/UPI
Church pews are empty of parishioners due to the Coronavirus pandemic while photographers take photos of Cardinal Timothy Dolan who offers Easter Sunday Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City. Photo by John Angelillo/UPI | License Photo

April 12 (UPI) -- The global COVID-19 pandemic and related guidelines restricting social gatherings have forced Easter Sunday celebrations largely outside of traditional church structures and online although some groups have resisted.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who had previously targeted Easter as a day the United States would begin to re-open following widespread orders to remain at home and closures of non-essential businesses, cited the physical separation from the church in a video message on Sunday.

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"This Easter will be much different than others because in many cases we'll be separated -- physically only -- from our churches. We won't be sitting there next to each other which we'd like to be and soon will be again," Trump said. "But right now we're keeping separation, we're getting rid of the plague. It's a plague on our country like nobody's ever seen."

The United States leads all countries with more than 540,000 coronavirus cases and more than 20,000 deaths.

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New York City's St. Patrick's Cathedral held an empty service that was streamed live as it had done on Palm Sunday the prior weekend as the state remains the hardest-hit in the country.

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"Faith, of course, doesn't depend on things physical. And we have faith these days that even though we can't sadly get to the synagogue or to our parish churches we can still be in union with God through prayer, through sincerity, through earnestness, through charity to others," New York Archbishop Cardinal Timothy Dolan told CBS' News Face the Nation. "And, thanks be to God, so many are using the technological advances that we have, live streaming, radio, TV, you name it."

Pope Francis also conducted Easter services inside a nearly empty St. Peter's Basilica as the service was broadcast on television, radio and streaming as he described an "Easter of solitude."

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In Israel, major religious sites including the Via Dolorosa and the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City were closed to the public and all non-Israeli citizens or permanent residents have been barred from entering the country shutting many out of places associated with the life of Jesus Christ.

The Israeli government also deployed about 1,000 police to enforce lockdowns in religious neighborhoods most affected by the coronavirus amid both Easter and the Jewish celebration of Passover.

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Bishop-elect of the Anglican Church in Jerusalem Very Reverend Dr. Hosam Naoum described the closures as "very devastating" but has streamed services from St. George's Cathedral on Facebook for the past two weeks to more than 1,000 viewers.

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In the United States, some local leaders have faced pushback in attempting to limit church services including in Kentucky where District Judge Justin Walker issued a temporary restraining order against the city of Louisville after Mayor Greg Fischer ordered people to avoid church services --including drive-through services -- and other gatherings.

"Citing the need for social distancing during the current pandemic, Louisville's Mayor Greg Fischer ordered Christians not to attend Sunday services, even if they remained in their cars to worship -- and even though it's Easter, the mayor's decision is stunning. And it is, 'beyond all reason,' unconstitutional," Walker wrote.

In Louisiana, Life Tabernacle Church Pastor Tony Spell said he would hold Easter services and expected more than 2,000 people to attend at the church, saying doors would be held open so no one would be required to touch them and people from different families would not be allowed to sit together.

Spell was charged with six counts of violating shutdown orders on March 31 and Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said the number of people in his church exceeded the legal limit "by a large margin."

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