Christmas celebrated under pandemic’s shadow

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VATICAN CITY, Dec 25, 2020 (BSS/AFP) – Hundreds of millions across
the world celebrated pared-down Christmas festivities on Friday due to
coronavirus restrictions, as Pope Francis called for vaccines for
everyone, describing them as “glimmers of hope in this period of
darkness and uncertainty”.

The pandemic has claimed more than 1.7 million lives and is still
running rampant in much of the world, but the recent launching of mass
vaccine campaigns has boosted hopes that 2021 could bring a respite.

Like so many across the globe, the pope was forced to break with
normal Christmas tradition, holding his annual “Urbi et Orbi” speech
by video from the apostolic palace, to prevent a crowd from gathering
in St Peter’s Square.

“I call on everyone, on leaders of states, on businesses, on
international organisations, to promote cooperation and not
competition, to find a solution for everyone: vaccines for all,
especially the most vulnerable and most in need in all regions of the
planet,” he said.

In her own annual Christmas speech, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II
also spoke of hope during “difficult and unpredictable times”.

“Of course, for many, this time of year will be tinged with sadness:
some mourning the loss of those dear to them, and others missing
friends and family members distanced for safety, when all they’d
really want for Christmas is a simple hug or a squeeze of the hand,”
she said.

“If you are among them, you are not alone,” she added, saying she
was proud of those in the UK and around the world who have “risen
magnificently to the challenges of the year”.

Britain has been through a particularly difficult time after the
discovery of a new strain of coronavirus believed to spread much
faster.

It had already been one of the hardest countries in Europe, which
passed a total of 25 million confirmed cases on Friday.

Last week it became the first global region where more than 500,000
people have died of the virus.

– ‘A way out of this tragedy’ –

World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a
video message that “vaccines are offering the world a way out of this
tragedy” but one that will “take time”.

Tedros hailed the “heart-wrenching sacrifices” millions were making
by staying away from loved ones on Christmas Day.

“We must not squander their sacrifices,” he said, calling for people
to keep up infection control measures.

In Asia, churches across South Korea stood largely empty, with
worshippers congregating online as the country reported a new daily
caseload record.

“It really is heartbreaking to see,” said Park Jae-woo, a member of
the Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul which would usually expect up to
10,000 worshippers, but on Friday was only able to welcome 15 staff
and choir members.

And in Catholic-majority Philippines, services were rocked when a
6.3-magnitude earthquake struck the country, capping off a troubled
yuletide already muted by bans on parties and carol singing.

“Sad, very sad. Seeing everyone in masks, even the priest and altar
servers, reminded me that the world as I know it is not the same,”
said Manila resident Kyen Quimpo Mallonga after watching Christmas Eve
mass on television instead of attending her local church.

Despite warm weather, the usual picnicking crowds also avoided the
sands of Sydney’s Bondi Beach, while the waves were empty of surfing
Santas and patrolling police officers enforced social distancing
rules.

– Thin crowds in Bethlehem –

Bethlehem, where Christians believe Jesus was born, prepared for a
Christmas unlike any in its recent history.

Christmas Eve mass at the Church of the Nativity is traditionally
the highlight of a holiday season that sees hundreds of thousands of
visitors flock to the Palestinian city in the occupied West Bank.

The service was held online this year, with only clergy and select
individuals allowed inside the basilica.

“Everyone feels darkened, tired, exhausted, oppressed for too long
under the heavy burden of this pandemic that besieges our lives,” said
the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Pierbattista Pizzaballa.

In war-ravaged northeast Syria, hundreds of residents of a
predominantly Christian neighbourhood in the town of Qamishli ditched
face masks and donned Santa hats, throwing caution to the wind to
celebrate a Christmas tree lighting ceremony.

“We were concerned celebrations would be cancelled this year due to
the novel coronavirus, but as you can see everyone is here celebrating
and we are happy,” said Maria Danhou, a 36-year-old mother of two.

– Holiday isolation –

Germany has been forced to cancel its famous Christmas markets,
while in Kuwait, churches were closed until January 10 despite being
home to a large Christian community.

For many, the isolation that has defined the past year will continue
beyond Christmas Day — such as in Belgium, where residents are
largely limited to welcoming a single visitor.

Britons, meanwhile, were cut off from swathes of the world due to
the emergence of the new Covid-19 strain.

Some UK border restrictions have been temporarily relaxed for the
holidays, but thousands from other European countries are still
stranded in England.

“Home for Christmas? Forget it,” said Laurent Beghin, a French truck
driver who delivered his cargo but was still stuck days later.

However more than 1,000 waiting trucks did arrive at the French port
of Calais on Friday, with hopes that the bottleneck could be cleared
by Saturday.