Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity closing, tourists banned before busy Easter season over coronavirus fears

The Church of the Nativity in biblical Bethlehem has been closed over coronavirus fears, the Palestinian tourism ministry announced Thursday. The move comes after the first cases of the virus were reported in the area.

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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 Israeli-occupied West Bank for an unspecified amount of time and shutting down other places of worship in Bethlehem for two weeks.

A total of seven Palestinians in the area have tested positive for coronavirus, the Palestinian health ministry said.

A total of seven Palestinians in the area have tested positive for coronavirus, the Palestinian health ministry said. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

“This affects us dramatically,” said Joey Canavati, manager of the 58-room Alexander Hotel in Bethlehem, to Reuters. “Our workers are essentially laid off for the next 14 days. We will be closed down completely.”

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A total of seven Palestinians in the area have tested positive for coronavirus, the Palestinian health ministry said.

It said the seven worked at a hotel where a group of Greek tourists stayed during a tour of Israel and the Palestinian territories in late February. The tourists tested positive for the virus after returning to Greece.

The church, which sees about 10,000 visitors a day, closed its doors weeks ahead of the Easter season, a massively popular time for tourists to visit the town where Jesus is believed to have been born. An additional estimated tens of thousands were expected to travel to the church during the Easter season.

The church, which sees about 10,000 visitors a day, closed its doors weeks ahead of the Easter season.

The church, which sees about 10,000 visitors a day, closed its doors weeks ahead of the Easter season. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

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According to reports, during Christmas, another popular time for the Church of Nativity, it saw the best visitor numbers in two decades, far surpassing the 1.5 million tourists in 2018.

The virus has disrupted other holy sites and places of worship across the Middle East.

People visit the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, West Bank, Thursday, March 5, 2020. Palestinian authorities said the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, built atop the spot where Christians believe Jesus was born, will close indefinitely due to coronavirus concerns.

People visit the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, West Bank, Thursday, March 5, 2020. Palestinian authorities said the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, built atop the spot where Christians believe Jesus was born, will close indefinitely due to coronavirus concerns. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

Saudi Arabia banned pilgrimages to the holy city of Mecca, while Iran has canceled Friday's Islamic prayers in major cities. Iraq canceled Friday prayers in Karbala, where a weekly sermon is delivered on behalf of the country's top Shiite cleric.

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More than 3,740 cases have been confirmed across the Middle East. Iran and Italy have the world’s highest death tolls outside of China.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.