BERLIN (Reuters) - Bavaria's Passion Play, staged every decade since the 1630s when villagers thanked God for the end of the plague, has been postponed for two years due to the coronavirus, organisers in the German village of Oberammergau said on Thursday.
About half a million people had been expected to descend on the Alpine village between May and Oct. 4 to watch one of the 103 performances of the play, which depicts the last days of Jesus Christ.
The health of guests and those involved was the top priority, said the organisers, and the premier, planned for May 16, has been postponed until 2022.
"At the moment it can be clearly predicted that it will not be possible to hold an event on the scale of the Passion Play. The risk of new infection chains will emerge," the Garmisch- Partenkirchen district authority said in a statement.
It said it was impossible to know when it could be rescheduled.
The number of confirmed cases in Germany increased by almost a third on Thursday to reach 11,000, with 20 known deaths, the Robert Koch Institute for Disease Control said. The southern state of Bavaria has been particularly hard hit.
Germany has shut schools, daycare centres and non-essential businesses in an effort to restrict social contact.
The Oberammergau Passion Play dates back to the 17th century plague. In 1633, villagers promised God they would perform the death and rebirth of Christ every ten years if they were spared. The first production took place a year later.
Over the years, the play has caused controversy from when Adolf Hitler visited it in the 1930s and praised its anti-Semitic tone to 1990 when traditionalists were outraged that the Virgin Mary was played by a married woman with two children.
Almost half the 5,400 residents of Oberammergau, plus donkeys, horses and goats, are involved in the production, a six-hour mix of music and drama.
The play also gives an economic boom to the Alpine village as hundreds of thousands of visitors buy merchandise ranging from cuckoo clocks to religious ornaments.
Cancellation or postponement is rare. In 1940, World War Two stopped a production. In 1920, the authorities postponed it for two years because of the high number people killed in World War I. And in 1770, it was banned.
(Reporting by Madeline Chambers; editing by Nick Macfie)