Christmas celebrated in Pakistan and world under pandemic's shadow
Imran Khan congratulates Christian community, urging them to observed corona SOPs
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Christmas festivities began Friday, with hundreds of millions across the world including in Pakistan under coronavirus restrictions celebrating a pared-down version of a holiday typically marked by travel and large gatherings.
Churches across South Korea stood largely empty, with worshippers congregating online as the country reported a new daily caseload record.
Churches throughout Pakistan saw a rush of people despite coronavirus pandemic alerts.
Prime Minister Imran Khan in his Christmas message congratulated the Christian community but cautioned them against Covid-19, urging them to observe SOPs.
All the churches in Lahore were overwhelmed with the rush as Christians took part in Christmas services. Karachi’s Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Islamabad’s Fatima Church, Peshawar’s ST John’s Cathedral and other cities also saw Christian devotees in good numbers.
The security was also tightened around the churches keeping in view the past attacks.
Around the world in Catholic-majority Philippine, 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.
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.
Pope Francis, spiritual leader of 1.3 billion Catholics across the globe, celebrated Christmas Eve mass in St Peter's Basilica before fewer than 200 masked faithful, mostly employees of the tiny state of Vatican City.
The mass, traditionally held at midnight, had been moved forward by two hours to 7:30 pm (1830 GMT) to meet Italy's curfew rules.
Before the pandemic hit, several thousand believers and tourists had obtained precious tickets to attend the papal mass.
Tough new coronavirus restrictions were imposed on Thursday over the Christmas and New Year period across Italy, the country hardest hit by the virus in Europe, with nearly 71,000 deaths and more than two million cases since the beginning of the pandemic.
The Christmas Eve mass commemorates the birth of Jesus of Nazareth in Bethlehem.
In his homily, the Argentinean pope stressed that the birth of a child reminds us not to spend our days "lamenting our lots, but soothing the tears of those who suffer", serving "the poor".
Francis, who just celebrated his 84th birthday, will address his eighth Christmas message "Urbi et orbi" ("to the city and the world") Friday by video from the apostolic palace, to prevent a crowd from gathering in St Peter's Square.
- Thin crowds in Bethlehem -
Bethlehem, where Christians believe Jesus was born, was preparing for a Christmas unlike any in its recent history.
The 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 mass online this year, with only clergy and select individuals allowed inside the basilica, which was sterilised Thursday ahead of the service.
"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 into Christmas Day and beyond -- 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 a 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.
With inputs from AFP.