JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The Holy Land churches revered as the sites of Jesus’ birth and death reopened to worshippers and tourists on Tuesday as Palestinian and church authorities eased coronavirus restrictions.
Amid lingering pandemic concerns, Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity is capping access at 50 people at a time and requires that they be free of fever and wear protective masks.
Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional site of Jesus’ crucifixion, death and resurrection, also reopened its doors, but worshippers will be required to coordinate their visit in advance.
Both churches were closed in March, in a blow to the local tourism industry.
“The birth of our Lord Jesus Christ gave hope to people more than 2,000 years ago, and opening the church today will, I think, give hope to the whole world that hopefully this pandemic will end – not only in Palestine but in the whole world,” Palestinian Tourism Minister Rula Ma’ayah told Reuters in Bethlehem.
The town, just south of Jerusalem, is among areas where Palestinians exercise limited self-rule in the West Bank, under Israeli occupation since the 1967 Middle East war.
There have been 423 recorded coronavirus cases and two deaths in the West Bank.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is in the walled Old City of Jerusalem, also captured by Israel in 1967. Its doors were closed throughout the Easter season because of the coronavirus, with only a handful of clerics able to worship inside.
On Monday, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said mosques, churches and businesses would reopen on Tuesday in an easing of curbs, given the slow pace of infections.
The reopening of houses of worship, shops and factories coincides with the last day of the Eid El-Fitr holiday marking the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
Muslim prayers at Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque compound are also expected to resume later this week after nearly a two-month pause, according to a statement published last week by Palestinian religious officials.
(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi, Mustafa Abu Ganeyeh, and Ali Sawafta; Editing by Dan Williams, Jeffrey Heller and Mike Collett-White)