An urgent call for prayer and support for Christians in Bethlehem has come from two charities which are warning that coronavirus lockdown could plunge the faithful into desperate poverty.
A week after the Palestinian Authority (PA) declared a state of emergency and put Bethlehem in lockdown, all tourists are banned from the West Bank, tourism has ceased, and the Church of the Nativity and other places of worship in Bethlehem remain closed.
With nearly 30 cases of coronavirus reported, the Israel Defence Forces acting in cooperation with the PA, are enforcing checkpoints to stop people from entering or leaving Bethlehem.
The official 30-day quarantine period for the city could be extended.
Friends of the Holy Land (FHL), which aids projects to sustain the Christian presence in the region, and Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), which helps persecuted Christians across the region, are calling for people to pray for Christians in Bethlehem at this time.
FHL Executive Director Brendan Metcalfe said: “While the lockdown precautionary action is understandable and reflects similar situations in other countries, the particular impact on the Bethlehem economy has been disastrous.
“The timing could not be worse especially in the lead up to Holy Week and Easter – one of the key tourism seasons for the city.”
Tourism is Bethlehem’s main industry and is the lifeline of the city’s economy with around two million visitors last year, but now the streets are empty.
Mr Metcalfe said: “Unlike the developed world, employment conditions for most in the city are fragile, hand to mouth, with no safety net of family or social support.
“76 percent of families were assessed as living below the poverty line before this crisis. They are now pushed beyond their means by sudden unemployment.
“The city is widely reported to have become a ghost town because many people are afraid to leave their homes. The people are afraid and beginning to panic.”
Both ACN and FHL are calling for prayer for all those affected by the coronavirus, especially people in Bethlehem at huge economic risk.
Neville Kyrke-Smith, National Director, Aid to the Church in Need, said: “We are in solidarity with all who are suffering in prayer.
“Please join us and stand by those ACN helps in the Holy Land – especially the Christian families – and those who are enduring so much throughout the Middle East as they witness to Christ’s love this long Lent.”
Mr Metcalfe said: “Let us also pray for all the people of Bethlehem who have been indirectly affected, those losing their jobs, for the many families who, in an already difficult and precarious situation, are now facing even greater economic and social difficulties.
“During this time of Lent, let us remain united and supportive in prayer above all, and in all possible forms and means of mutual help and support. Please share awareness of their condition and your concerns with your friends, family and parish.”