Amid pandemic, Christians celebrate an Easter like no other

Health

In this Thursday, April 9, 2020 photo, Turkish police officers man a checkpoint to check people’s ID due to measures against the spread of coronavirus in Ankara, Turkey. Turkey has charted its own course to navigate the coronavirus pandemic, with a more relaxed lockdown than its neighbours in Europe and the Middle East. Citing concerns about the economy, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has so far resisted calls for more drastic measures to stem the contagion.(AP Photo/Burthan Ozbilici)

NEW YORK (AP) — Christians celebrated Easter Sunday isolated in their homes by the coronavirus while pastors preached the faith’s joyous news of Christ’s resurrection to empty pews. St. Peter’s Square was barricaded to keep out crowds, while one Florida church drew a large turnout for a drive-in service in a parking lot.

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, released from the hospital after a week of treatment for COVID-19, paid an emotional tribute to the country’s National Health Service, saying its doctors and nurses had saved his life “no question.” He especially thanked two nurses who stood by his bedside for 48 hours “when things could have gone either way.”

The strangeness of this Easter was evident at the Vatican. St. Peter’s Square, where tens of thousands would normally gather to hear Pope Francis, was empty. Francis celebrated Easter Mass inside the largely vacant basilica, calling for global solidarity to confront the “epochal challenge” of the pandemic and urging political leaders to give hope and opportunity to people who’ve lost jobs.

Worldwide, families who normally would attend church in their Easter best and later enjoy festive group meals stayed home. Police checkpoints in Europe and outside closed churches elsewhere left the faithful watching services online or on TV.

Some U.S. pastors went ahead with in-person services despite state or local bans on large gatherings.

At the Happy Gospel Church in Bradenton, Florida, about 100 cars carrying 250 people gathered in the parking lot to hear Pastor Bill Bailey’s Easter sermon. Some sat in lawn chairs or on tailgates, but families stayed at least 6 feet apart; those in their cars occasionally honked to convey agreement with Bailey’s remarks.

In Louisiana, a pastor who is facing misdemeanor charges for holding services despite a ban on gatherings, said people from every state and all but one continent attended his Easter service Sunday morning.

“My hope is not in a vaccine for a virus, but all my hope is in Jesus,” Rev. Tony Spell said during the service shown online at Life Tabernacle Church in the city of Central.

Worshipers could be heard clapping, singing and responding “Amen” during the service, though it was not clear how many attended.

President Donald Trump had said he planned to watch an online service led by the Rev. Robert Jeffress of the Southern Baptist megachurch First Baptist Dallas, although the White House wouldn’t confirm whether he did. The pastor, a staunch ally of the president, mentioned Trump in his remarks.

“We are going to get through this crisis with your continued strong leadership and the power of God,” Jeffress said.

In their own Easter message, Trump and his wife, Melania, paid tribute to the medical professionals, first responders and other essential workers striving to combat the pandemic.

Back on March 24, at a Fox News virtual town hall, Trump had broached the possibility that the U.S. could emerge from widespread lockdowns by this weekend.

“I would love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter,” he said.

“Wouldn’t it be great to have all of the churches full?” Trump said in a subsequent interview. “You’ll have packed churches all over our country.”

Instead, most churches were empty, including St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, which is the epicenter of the pandemic in the U.S.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who led a televised Mass, said he was pleased congregants could have a virtual celebration. “We miss you though,” he added. “We’d rather you be here physically.”

In the morning, members of churches from across New York sang “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” from balconies and windows.

“Even if you didn’t hear everyone, God heard everyone,” said Kathy Keller, of Reedemer Presbyterian Church, who helped organize the event online.

In Europe, countries used roadblocks, fines and other tactics to keep people from traveling over an Easter weekend with beautiful spring weather.

The Italian government said weekend police patrols resulted in more than 12,500 people being sanctioned and 150 facing criminal charges of violating lockdown measures.

On the hopeful side, officials said Italy recorded the lowest number of new coronavirus dead in three weeks, with 431 people dying in the past day to bring its total to over 19,800.

As hard-hit countries like Italy and Spain see reduced daily virus infections and deaths, economic pressures are mounting to loosen the tight restrictions on daily life.

Southern Europe and the United States, whose death toll of over 22,000 is now the world’s highest, have been the recent focal points of the pandemic. But coronavirus hot spots have been shifting, with new concerns rising in Japan, Turkey and Britain, where the death toll passed 10,000.

Uncertainties loomed about the months ahead, with a top European Union official suggesting people hold off on making any summer vacation plans.

Some European nations started tentative moves to ease their shutdowns. Spain, which on Sunday reported its lowest daily growth in infections in three weeks, will allow workers in some nonessential industries to return to factories and construction sites Monday.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for others, especially older people and the infirm, it can cause severe symptoms and become fatal.

More than 1.8 million infections have been reported and over 114,000 people have died worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University. The U.S. has the most confirmed cases, over 555,000. The numbers likely don’t show the full toll, due to limited testing, uneven counting of the dead and some governments playing down the extent of outbreaks.

In Britain, Johnson thanked those who treated him at St. Thomas’ Hospital and praised the entire National Health Service, which he called the “beating heart of this country.” His week in the hospital included three nights in the intensive care unit, where he received oxygen but was not put on a ventilator.

“I can’t thank them enough. I owe them my life,” Johnson said in his statement. His office said he will continue his recovery at his country home.

In the United States, about half the deaths are in the New York metropolitan area, but hospitalizations are slowing in the state and other indicators suggest that lockdowns and social distancing are “flattening the curve” of infections.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease expert, said the economy in parts of the country could gradually reopen as early as next month.

While he said there’s no light switch that will be clicked to turn everything back, he told CNN’s “State of the Union” that “rolling reentry” will be required based on the status of the pandemic in various parts of the country.

New York state Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that 758 people died in the state Saturday, the sixth day in a row the toll topped 700. More than 9,300 people have died in New York.

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Winfield reported from Rome. Associated Press journalists around the world contributed.

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Follow AP coverage of the pandemic at http://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.

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