Bethlehem's storied Nativity Church closes amid virus fears

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A relatively few number of Muslims pray around the Kaaba, the cubic building at the Grand Mosque, in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Thursday, March 5, 2020. Saudi Arabia's Deputy Health Minister Abdel-Fattah Mashat was quoted on the state-linked news site Al-Yaum saying that groups of visitors to Mecca from inside the country would now also be barred from performing the pilgrimage, known as the umrah. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

DUBAI – Palestinian officials on Thursday indefinitely closed the storied Church of the Nativity in the biblical city of Bethlehem over fears of the new coronavirus, weeks ahead of the busy Easter holiday season.

The announcement by the Palestinian tourism ministry threatened to derail the vital tourist season in the traditional birthplace of Jesus and highlighted the spread of the virus across the Middle East, where worship at major holy sites has been greatly disrupted by the health scare. Iran, the epicenter of the virus in the region, said it would set up checkpoints to limit travel between major cities and urged citizens to reduce their use of paper money to fight the spreading outbreak, which has killed at least 107 people across the Islamic Republic.

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 West Bank for an unspecified amount of time and shutting down other places of worship in Bethlehem for two weeks. If confirmed, the four suspected cases would be the first in the Palestinian areas.

Built on the grotto where Christians believe Jesus was born, the church joins a list of prominent tourist and holy sites to shutter their doors in the wake of rising fears over the spread of the virus, which has infected tens of thousands and killed more than 3,000 globally.

“We respect the instructions of the relevant authorities,” said Wadie Abunassar, an adviser to Catholic church officials in the Holy Land. "Safety comes first."

Just before 4 p.m., a bearded clergyman walked outside and locked the church's wooden door with a large key. Just a few foreign tourists milled about.

Artur Joba, a Polish tourist visiting with his girlfriend, said he had decided to cut his stay in Bethlehem short and would head to nearby Jerusalem on Friday.

“I heard they found the coronavirus infection here and we decided to leave," he said. “We can’t stay here any more. I’m going back to my hotel now to look for a hotel elsewhere.”

Saif Saboh, a Palestinian tour guide, said a number of groups have canceled visits in recent days, fearing the virus.

He said he has stopped shaking hands or getting too close to tourists. When he gets home in the evening, he said he washes and keeps away from his children. “I'm terrified," he said. “It is serious and any tourist could be infected.”

The virus has disrupted Muslim worship across the Middle East. Saudi Arabia banned pilgrimages to the holy city of Mecca, while Iran has canceled Friday's Islamic prayers in major cities.

The Church of the Nativity receives some 10,000 tourists a day, according to Palestinian officials. It is expected to welcome tens of thousands of visitors during the busy Easter season. If the measures remain in place, the fledgling Palestinian tourism industry could take a walloping. Tourists currently in the West Bank were instructed to leave once their bookings end.

Elias al-Arja, the head of the Bethlehem hotel owners union, angrily accused the government 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 said.

Anton Suleiman, the mayor of Bethlehem, acknowledged that “everything is closed because of the panic.” But he said, “Even if this causes huge damage to the economy, public safety is the most important thing to us.”

In Iran, Health Minister Saeed Namaki announced his country's new restrictions at a televised press conference. He added that schools and universities will remain closed through Nowruz, the Persian New Year, on March 20.

“We will strictly control comings and goings,” he said.

Ali Darvishpour, deputy governor of Alborz province, said that except for medical centers, all governmental offices, banks and institutions will be closed Saturday, the first day of Iran's work week, according to the semi-official ISNA news agency. He also urged people to stay at home.

Iran and Italy have the world’s highest death tolls outside of China.

These mark the latest disruptions of life across the Mideast from the new virus, which has seen over 3,740 confirmed cases in the region.

Even as the Bethlehem church was closed, 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. The nearby Al Aqsa mosque compound was expected to welcome 50,000 worshipers for Friday prayers. The Islamic Waqf, which administers the site, encouraged the faithful to ensure good personal hygiene.

Israel, which has 15 confirmed virus cases, has taken strict measures in a bid to stave off an outbreak, including banning the entry of visitors from some 10 countries. With many tourists to the West Bank flying in through Israel's international airport, the Palestinians are likely also being affected.

The virus has started to shake Israel's tourism industry as well. Israeli airline El Al, which has cancelled dozens of flights to countries with a virus outbreak, announced on Wednesday that it was laying off 1,000 employees because of the economic fallout from the virus.

Earlier Thursday, the United Arab Emirates warned its citizens and its foreign residents not to travel abroad amid the ongoing outbreak, a stark warning for a country home to two major long-haul airlines. Both airlines, Emirates and Etihad, have encouraged staff to take time off as international travel has dropped due to the virus.

The country's Health and Community Protection Ministry warning comes as its capital, Abu Dhabi, sent 215 foreigners it evacuated from hard-hit Hubei in China to a quarantine set up in its Emirates Humanitarian City. They include citizens of Egypt, Sudan and Yemen.

Health officials warned that those traveling abroad could face quarantine themselves at the discretion of authorities. The UAE is home to some 9 million people, with only about 1 million estimated to be Emirati citizens.

Worship continued to be disrupted elsewhere, as Iraq canceled Friday prayers in the Shiite holy city of Karbala, according to a statement Thursday. Millions of Iraqis look to the weekly sermon delivered by a representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani for guidance every Friday.

Karbala, and the nearby Shiite holy city of Najaf in southern Iraq, attract millions of Shiite pilgrims, most of them from Iran, every year.

Two people who had tested positive for the coronavirus have died in Iraq, the Iraqi Health Ministry said. Iraq has 39 confirmed cases, almost all of them Iran-linked.


Associated Press writers Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Iran, Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad and Josef Federman in Jerusalem contributed.