JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre, revered in Christian tradition as the site of Jesus's crucifixion and burial, was closed on Wednesday as a precaution against the coronavirus.
The closure, initially for a week, followed a meeting between Israeli police and church leaders, said Wadie Abu Nassar, spokesperson of the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land, after the Israeli government announced tighter restrictions to curb the spread of the virus.
"The initial understanding is that this order is valid for one week, although nobody knows how long this crisis will take," he said.
Adeeb Joudeh, a Palestinian whose family holds one of the keys to the church, confirmed the decision on Facebook.
The closure comes in the build-up to Easter, the most important festival in the Christian calendar, which Roman Catholics this year celebrate on April 12. It would normally see thousands of pilgrims and tourists flock to the city, whose streets are now virtually deserted.
Greek Orthodox celebrations are held a week later, including the traditional ceremony of the Holy Fire in the church, a hugely popular and colourful event symbolising the resurrection of Jesus after his death on the cross.
Abu Nassar said that, "if, God forbid, this situation goes on too long and it enters into the season of Easter", church authorities hoped that an arrangement could be found to celebrate within the new guidelines, perhaps by limiting attendance.
The anti-virus restrictions began last month when Roman Catholic priests were told to place communion wafers into the hand only, rather than onto worshippers' tongues.
Jerusalem's walled Old City houses places sacred to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and the other religions have taken similar precautions.
Jewish authorities on Wednesday instructed all synagogues to close and hold prayers outdoors, for no more than 10 people at a time.
At the Western Wall, they have instructed the faithful to refrain from holding mass prayers and from kissing the stones of the ancient wall, which abuts the compound known to Jews as Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary.
On Sunday, Muslim religious officials suspended all prayers at the nearby al-Aqsa Mosque compound.
(Reporting by Roleen Tafakji and Stephen Farrell, Writing by Rami Ayyub; Editing by Kevin Liffey)