Egypt Coptic church suspends Easter Holy Week services over virus

Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox church has decided to suspend prayers preceding Easter celebrations later this month as part of efforts to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The church, which last month ordered the closure of churches and suspension of services nationwide, said the decision was taken on Thursday during a meeting chaired by Pope Tawadros II.

“Prayers, including Holy Week services, which are considered the most important rituals in the Coptic Orthodox church, will be suspended” until the pandemic is contained, a statement posted on Facebook said.

Holy Week prayers precede Easter Sunday, which this year will be celebrated on April 19 by the Orthodox community, one week later than the Catholic Easter.

Church spokesman Boulos Halim said these were “unprecedented and historic” measures implemented to stem the crisis.

On March 21, the church ordered the closure of all churches and suspended ritual services, masses and other religious activities for two weeks to combat the spread of the virus.

With Thursday’s decision, these measures will continue until further notice.

It was not yet clear if Pope Tawadros II, who heads the Coptic church, would go ahead with a pared-down midnight mass ahead of Easter.

Coptic Christians are the largest non-Muslim religious minority in the Middle East and account for 10-15 percent of Egypt’s predominantly Sunni Muslim population of 100 million.

Also in March, Egypt’s Catholic church said it was suspending masses until further notice.

Egypt so far has recorded 71 deaths out of 1,070 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus.

Authorities have imposed tough measures to limit social interaction in the Arab world’s most populous country, including a night-time curfew that went into effect last week.

Those violating the measures could face fines of up to 4,000 Egyptian pounds ($250) and jail sentences.

Authorities have also closed schools and universities, while air traffic has been halted until April 15. (AFP)