By Dominique Vidalon
PARIS (Reuters) - Nearly a year after fire devastated Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris, the city's Archbishop held a small ceremony there to mark Good Friday, praying that Easter's message of rebirth might bring comfort to a country stricken by the coronavirus pandemic.
Only seven people, including Paris Archbishop Michel Aupetit, attended the solemn service in the apse behind Notre-Dame's Pietà due to the nationwide lockdown across France, but many more watched on their televisions.
"A year ago, this cathedral was burning, causing bewilderment," said Aupetit, after bowing before a relic of Christ's crown of thorns that was famously saved from the blaze by a fireman.
"Today we are in this half-collapsed cathedral to say that life continues."
The world had been "brought down and paralysed by a pandemic that spreads death", Aupetit said. "As we are going to celebrate Easter, we will celebrate life which is stronger than death, love stronger than hate."
The prized golden wreath rested on a red velvet pillow placed on an altar in front of a huge golden cross, as Aupetit led the service dressed in crimson vestments.
He and his fellow clerics wore white hard hats as they entered the cathedral, much of which remains a building site, before removing them for the service.
French actors Philippe Torreton and Judith Chemla read texts by Christian writers Charles Peguy and Paul Claudel, while classical violinist Renaud Capuçon provided musical accompaniment.
All three were clad in white jumpsuits and boots to protect them against lead poisoning after the fire left traces of the metal throughout the building.
The one-hour ceremony ended with Chemla singing "Ave Maria".
It was the second service to have been held in the Gothic church since the April 15 fire.
On June 15, 2019, a mass to commemorate the cathedral's consecration as a place of worship was held in a side-chapel of Notre-Dame that had been undamaged by the blaze.
The fire destroyed the mediaeval cathedral's roof, toppled the spire and almost brought down the main bell towers and outer walls before firefighters brought it under control.
President Emmanuel Macron has set a target of five years for restoring Notre-Dame, one of Europe's most recognisable landmarks. Restoration work has, however, been put on hold by the lockdown that began in France on March 17.
(Reporting by Dominique Vidalon; Editing by Mike Collett-White)