By Ann Marie Foley - 10 March, 2020
Bethlehem has been closed to all visitors in a bid to contain the coronavirus, and the charity Friends of the Holy Land has launched an appeal to support the local people.
The UK-based charity has highlighted how Bethlehem depends on tourism, with more than 30 per cent of the working population employed in it. There are also many more who rely on visitors who frequent their shops, cafés, taxis and other businesses. Tourism accounts for approximately 65 per cent of the city’s economy and there were around 2 million visitors last year.
“Employment conditions for most in the industry are fragile, hand to mouth, with no safety net of social support,” stated the charity.
The close-down of the town is already impacting on the lives of most Christians in Bethlehem.
“Our office staff provide front-line support to the neediest every week. We ask you to help us gear up our levels of this support to offset those immediately affected by this lockdown in the weeks ahead – just £40 per week can put food on the table to feed a typical family whose breadwinner is now unemployed,” the charity stated.
Friends of the Holy Land states that the ban on visitors is fully understandable, and is similar to bans in many other places in the world. The Palestinian Authority declared a state of emergency in the West Bank last Thursday 5 March 2020, as seven cases of Bethlehem residents carrying the coronavirus were confirmed.
This means the Church of the Nativity and other places of worship in Bethlehem are shut, all tourism and religious sites across the West Bank are closed and all tourists banned from the West Bank for an unspecified period. The Israeli army, in coordination with the Palestinian Authority, is enforcing a closure on Bethlehem, banning Israelis and Palestinians from entering or leaving the city.
Friends of the Holy Land says that the impact on the Bethlehem economy is likely to be particularly bad in the lead-up to Easter, which is one of the main tourism seasons for the city.
The charity has also called for prayers for the full recovery of those who have become ill with the coronavirus, and for the residents of Bethlehem, who are in fear and have been isolated from the West Bank and the rest of the world.
Separately, Pope Francis has prayed for those who are ill with the coronavirus. Speaking from the Library of the Apostolic Palace on Sunday (8 March 2020), Pope Francis said he wanted to assure “those suffering from the current coronavirus epidemic and to all those who are caring for them” of his prayers.
The Pope prayed his Sunday Angelus from the Apostolic Palace, rather than from the balcony in St Peter’s Square, at the request of Italian authorities and to avoid the risk of the spread of the virus via the large groups that gather at security checks for access to the Square.
The Pope said that his thoughts during his retreat over the past week were with those suffering during this crisis.
At the end of their meeting held in Nairobi, Kenya, from 4 to 7 March 2020, members of the SECAM Standing Committee (Symposium of the Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar) expressed their concern about the spread of the coronavirus in Africa and the rest of the world, and said they were praying for those affected.
In Pakistan, Catholics have declared a week of prayer and fasting to be freed from the coronavirus.