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Bethlehem in lockdown after coronavirus cases

09 March 2020


A Palestinian worker sterilises a church in the West Bank city of Beit Sahour, near Bethlehem, on Monday

A Palestinian worker sterilises a church in the West Bank city of Beit Sahour, near Bethlehem, on Monday

THE Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and all other places of worship in the West Bank have been closed indefinitely after seven residents tested positive for the coronavirus.

The Palestinian Authority declared a state of emergency after the new cases were confirmed on Thursday of last week. Under its instruction, the Israeli army is enforcing a lockdown. Israelis and Palestinians are banned from entering or leaving the city. All tourism and religious sites have been closed indefinitely, and tourists are banned from the West Bank for an unspecified period of time.

Tourism is the main industry in Bethlehem; about two million people visited last year.

The Friends of the Holy Land, an ecumenical group that works with churches to foster communities in the region, said in a statement this week: “While this precautionary action is understandable and reflects similar situations in other countries, the impact on the Bethlehem economy is expected to be disastrous, especially in the lead-up to Easter, one of the key tourism seasons for the city.”

The group has launched an appeal to support the people who, it says, are already suffering because of the fragile nature of the tourism industry and lack of social support.

On Wednesday, 76 coronavirus cases had been confirmed in Israel, and thousands of people had been placed in isolation. Energy and tourism shares at the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange have plummeted in line with other stock trends worldwide. The Palestinian Authority was reported to be considering a more widespread lockdown.

Other cities around the world are experiencing a similar curfew on public gatherings. In Italy, where 631 people have died and more than 10,000 people have been infected in 20 regions, the government has introduced strict quarantine measures across the whole country. Under the new rules for the whole population in Italy, special permission is required for travel.

The original restrictions applied only to the region of Lombardy and 14 provinces, but they were extended on Tuesday. All churches, schools and universities, museums, cinemas, and swimming pools have been closed.

The UK Foreign Office has advised against all but essential travel to Italy. Up to 20,000 UK citizens in Italy may have to travel home by road and rail after thousands of flights were cancelled.

On Sunday, the Italian Bishops’ Conference announced that all public masses and liturgical celebrations, including funerals, were suspended until 3 April. The bishops acknowledged the “suffering and difficulty” that the ban would cause for both clergy and lay people, but they said that they had a duty to “contribute to the protection of public health”.

The Italian authorities hope that the ban can be relaxed in time for Holy Week and Easter.

Pope Francis’s weekly address to a general audience was once again livestreamed from the Vatican library to prevent the unnecessary spread of the virus. The Pope said that he had felt “a little bit caged” in the circumstances.

Last week, the Pope confirmed that the Economy of Francis event, due to be held in Assisi on 26 March, had been postponed until November because of the outbreak. About 2000 young people from 115 countries were due to attend it.

The Anglican Chaplain of St Leonard’s, Assisi, Canon Jonathan Lloyd, confirmed on Tuesday that all churches in Italy had now been closed, including Anglican chaplaincies, until 3 April. “There have been huge numbers of hotel cancellations this week, and the local shops and restaurants are practically empty,” he said.

Since the new strain of coronavirus was identified in Wuhan City, China, last December, more than 120,602 people have been infected, at leats 66,894 people have recovered, and at least 4365 people are known to have died from the virus. Many of the dead had underlying health problems.

Both China and South Korea, however, are reported to have “passed the peak” of infection. More than 7700 cases have been confirmed in South Korea and 61 people have died. The infection rate continues to fall in China, where more than 80,000 of the global cases were confirmed, and about 3000 of the deaths.

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