Bethlehem Nativity Church Reopens after Coronavirus Closure
Bethlehem's storied Church of the Nativity reopened to visitors on Tuesday, after a nearly three-month closure due to the coronavirus pandemic.
A handful of priests from different Christian denominations stood watch as the door to the church in the Israeli-occupied West Bank was opened, an AFP photographer reported.
The church, built over the spot where Christians believe Jesus was born, was closed on March 5 as the first cases of the virus were reported in the West Bank.
The church is one of Christianity’s most sacred shrines and the closure came ahead of the busy Easter holiday season that typically draws tens of thousands of visitors and worshipers.
Bishop Theophylactos, a Greek Orthodox cleric, called the reopening a day of celebration for Bethlehem since “all the people now can enter the church and pray like before.”
Initially only 50 people will be allowed in the church at one time and visitors must wear face coverings and observe social distancing, a joint statement from the churches that control the site said.
Kissing or touching the stones, including in the grotto where Christians believe Jesus was born, will be forbidden.
The Bethlehem outbreak began with a group of Greek tourists who visited the city, including the Church of the Nativity, prompting church authorities to sterilize the site.
The Palestinian Authority has reported some 400 cases of the coronavirus in the West Bank, with two deaths. Most of the cases were traced to Palestinians who worked inside Israel, which has been coping with a much larger outbreak.
Israeli authorities have begun to gradually reopen schools, houses of worship and markets as the spread of the novel coronavirus has slowed. Israel’s Health Ministry has reported over 16,700 confirmed cases of the disease and 279 deaths. More than 14,000 have recovered.