Locked down in the Holy Land: Bethlehem closes to contain coronavirus

Thirteen Americans are among 40 staff and visitors being isolated in the Angel Hotel in Beit Jala on the outskirts of Bethlehem

The storied Church of the Nativity is indefinitely closed, the crossing points between Jerusalem and the biblical Bethlehem are sealed shut, a group of tourists are in isolation and the city is on lockdown after the first cases of coronavirus were discovered in the occupied West Bank last week.

The streets of Bethlehem, usually teaming with the faithful, are empty just weeks ahead of the busy Easter holiday season.

The announcement by the Palestinian tourism ministry last week to close the church and stop hotels accepting foreign visitors threatens to devastate the vital tourism industry in the town where Jesus is believed to have been born. The site is just the latest holy site disrupted as the virus spreads across the Middle East.

The Church of the Nativity was closed after suspicions that four Palestinians had caught the virus, prompting a flurry of measures that included banning all tourists from the Israeli-occupied West Bank for an unspecified amount of time and shutting down other places of worship in Bethlehem for two weeks.

The Palestinian health ministry later said a total of seven Palestinians from Bethlehem have tested positive for the virus, the first cases reported in the Palestinian territories.

It said the seven worked at the Angel Hotel where a group of Greek tourists stayed during a tour of Israel and the Palestinian territories in late February. The tourists tested positive for the virus after returning to Greece.

Thirteen Americans are among 40 staff and visitors being isolated in the Angel Hotel in Beit Jala on the outskirts of Bethlehem. The hotel was one of the first areas of coronavirus concern in the Bethlehem area. The 30-day state of emergency and travel restrictions were brought in after the workers tested positive.

Palestinian security forces wearing masks and gloves were stationed around the hotel on Saturday, as they have been since the first cases were announced.

"It was going to be the trip of a lifetime," Chris Bell, 42, lead pastor of the 3Circle Church in Fairhope, Alabama, told Reuters by video chat from the second floor of the Hotel.

"The 13 of us would be what I would call a community of faith," Pastor Bell said.

"What we're doing is encouraging each other every day, we are reminding one another that we love each other. We are reminding each other that we trust in God and that he has a plan for it," he said.

His church works with a school in Bethlehem, part of the reason for their visit to the Holy Land, he said.

Things "went bad" for the group from Alabama on Tuesday when they learned they had shared the hotel with a Greek tourist who apparently carried the coronavirus, said Pastor Bell.

They left the next morning for a trip but were called back to the hotel the next day and told to go into quarantine.

He said they were awaiting test results and expected to be in quarantine for 14 days, meaning they still had nine to go.

The group has not left its hotel floor and everyone wears gloves and masks when they leave their rooms, said the pastor, adding that his wife Nan was with him and their three children in the United States being looked after by friends and family.

He thanked the Palestinian, Israeli and US, officials who were dealing with their care, and said the hotel had made sure they were getting enough food, water and medicine.

"Even if we need to be quarantined, we're hoping that the United States, our own country, will possibly fly us home," he said. "And if they need to quarantine us there for a time we understand that. But, you know, we need to get home," he said.

Built on the site where Christians believe Jesus was born in a manger, the Church of the Nativity is one of several tourist and holy sites to shut their doors over concerns about the virus, which has infected over 100,000 people and killed more than 3,000 globally.

A bearded clergyman walked outside and locked the church’s wooden door with a large key. A team of workers dressed in white overalls arrived with jugs of cleaning materials and walked through a side entrance to disinfect the building. Tariq Al Ali, one of the workers, said it was the second time his team disinfected the church.

“We have disinfected many institutions in the past week. We are under pressure,” he said.

Saif Saboh, a Palestinian tour guide, said a number of groups had cancelled visits in recent days. He said he has stopped shaking hands or getting too close to tourists. “I’m terrified,” he said. “Any tourist could be infected.”

The virus has disrupted Muslim worship across the Middle East. Saudi Arabia banned pilgrimages to the holy city of Makkah, while Iran has cancelled Friday prayers in major cities. Iraq cancelled Friday prayers in Karbala, where a weekly sermon is delivered on behalf of the country’s top Shiite cleric.

The Church of the Nativity receives thousands of tourists a day, according to Palestinian officials, but through the Easter season the number jumps.

Elias Al Arja, the head of the Bethlehem hotel owners union, angrily accused authorities of caving in to panic. “This will cause huge damage to the economy. We have 3,000 workers in the tourist sector and they will all go home. Who is going to feed their families,” he asked.

Anton Suleiman, the mayor of Bethlehem, acknowledged the economic impact, but said “public safety is the most important thing to us.”

Israeli officials said they were working closely with their Palestinian counterparts to contain the virus. Cogat, the Israeli military liaison agency to the Palestinian territories, said it had delivered 250 test kits to Palestinian health teams and was coordinating joint training sessions for Israeli and Palestinian medical workers.

For the time being, other major places of worship in the Holy Land remained open. Israeli officials said there were no special precautions at the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, though hand sanitizing stations were placed at the site.

“In this time of distress, there is nothing more appropriate than coming to pray at the Western Wall,” said Shmuel Rabinowitz, the rabbi who oversees the site.

The nearby Al Aqsa mosque compound welcomed thousands of worshipers for Friday prayers. The Islamic Waqf, which administers the site, said the buildings have been disinfected and the sermon was brief.

Israel, which has 17 confirmed virus cases, has taken strict measures in a bid to stave off an outbreak, including banning the entry of visitors from around 10 countries.

On Thursday, German airline Lufthansa said it and its Austrian and Swiss subsidiaries were cancelling flights to and from Israel for three weeks starting Sunday because of the restrictions.

Israeli airline El Al, which has cancelled dozens of flights to countries with outbreaks, announced Wednesday that it was laying off 1,000 employees.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the government will set up an “emergency cash flow assistance fund” for businesses deemed essential to the economy. It was not immediately clear if that would apply to El Al.

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