JERUSALEM — The Palestinian Ministry of Health’s decision to shutter all West Bank religious and tourist sites for 30 days, effective Friday following an outbreak of COVID-19 (coronavirus) in the Bethlehem area, is already having a profound effect on local Palestinian Christians and Muslims.

That’s especially true for people who rely on pilgrimages for their livelihoods.

More international tourists visit Bethlehem than any other West Bank site. But this week the city’s streets were nearly deserted.

The Palestinian Authority is also prohibiting all but essential travel between Bethlehem and other Palestinian cities to limit the virus’ spread.

Israel, meanwhile, is preventing travel between Bethlehem and Israel, in what amounts to a hermetic seal. Tour buses are being turned back from the Jerusalem-Bethlehem checkpoint, and only a few tourists — those being quarantined in two hotels because they may have been exposed to the virus — remain.

As of March 9, 24 residents of the Bethlehem region and one in another West Bank city had been diagnosed with the virus, which originated in China. Several had been in contact with a group of Greek pilgrims who became ill after returning to Greece. An East Jerusalem bus driver who ferried the Greek pilgrims is in critical condition. A Palestinian from another city also had the virus, officials said.

At least 39 Israelis also have the virus.

Following the Palestinian ministry’s announcement, workers in protective clothing disinfected the Church of the Nativity in Manger Square, to make it safe for clergy, who are the only ones permitted inside the church.

On Sunday, no Mass was held.

“In this case, the faithful are exempt from the obligation of Sunday Mass participation,” Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, wrote in a statement, urging local Christians to take precautions against contracting the virus.

Archbishop Pizzaballa said the Stations of the Cross can be held in squares or open spaces, weather and health rules permitting. Otherwise it can be prayed within one’s own family.

 

Latin Patriarchate’s Measures

The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem canceled all ecclesial and pastoral activities, including youth groups and scouting events.

“If conditions permit, I invite all parish priests to organize online streaming of Masses through the use of the media and to communicate this possibility to their parishioners. The same applies to catechism and other similar initiatives,” Archbishop Pizzaballa wrote. “We encourage everyone to pray at home, read the Bible, and continue to fast, asking God for mercy and forgiveness.”

He called on the faithful to cling to their faith.

“We must not panic, but be aware that even in this present situation, we will pass this test. We must not doubt; faith in Jesus helps us and always supports us,” he said. “Christians are those who decide to live in love and not in fear. We remain calm and firm in hope.”

Tony Sayeh, a 21-year-old Catholic university student who lives in Bethlehem, said the situation “is a disaster.”

“All education has stopped, and I work in a hotel so there is no work and I’m not earning any money,” Sayeh told the Register. “My father, who is a blacksmith, and my mother, who is a physiotherapist, aren’t working either” because people have been told to stay home to thwart infection.

Sayeh said being unable to go to church has also taken an emotional toll.

“We feel isolated,” he said.

Fadi Kattan, a Bethlehem-based chef who owns a 12-room guest house and popular on-site restaurant in the heart of the Old City, said the problem “isn’t only that we’re locked in, but that visitors are locked out.”

Kattan blamed Israeli authorities of overreacting.

“Israel has more cases of the virus than we do,” he said.

Israeli authorities, who coordinated the Bethlehem closure with the Palestinian Authority, have urged citizens to not travel abroad unnecessarily but have not imposed a ban. As of March 9, all Israelis and foreigners who arrive in Israel from abroad must go into home quarantine for a two-week period. 

 

Economic Impact

Tourism is Bethlehem’s main source of income, so the virus’ outbreak is an especially hard blow.

“We had a very good year last year, but now all the hotels are shut down; all the tourist restaurants are shut down. It’s quite an eerie feeling, like a science-fiction movie,” Kattan said. “And Easter is around the corner.”

In Bethlehem, March is the beginning of high season, when the weather gets warmer and pilgrims come in large numbers.

Kattan said many Palestinians who work in the tourism industry are casual workers with no job security. With no tourists, “these people have lost their daily income. We do have an obligation to pay their salaries, even though workers are at home. We’re a small property. We can pay salaries for a month or two. A lot of people here live on a day-to-day basis.”

Vera Baboun, a member of the Palestinian National Council and a former mayor of Bethlehem, told the Register that she, her children and grandchildren are all at home, per government orders.

“This is the fifth day we are at home. The virus situation is very concerning. We are a very small city, and containing the virus is very important to us.”

Baboun, who is Catholic, said despite the difficulties, she has been gratified by the “overwhelming response” from her fellow Palestinians both inside and outside Bethlehem.

“People are donating food and other supplies. It’s unbelievable how the community has reached out. Any support families can receive is important,” Baboun said.

Kattan warned that the economic crisis could continue long after the last virus cases are resolved.

“We’ve been told to cancel all reservations until March 20, but we’re getting a lot of cancellations from people for after that date. Restarting the season will be a challenge.”

Michele Chabin is the Register’s Middle East correspondent.