After seven cases of the coronavirus were confirmed in the city of Bethlehem, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas declared a state of emergency on Thursday. One result of this decision was that a group of Americans from a church in Alabama is now quarantined in a Bethlehem hotel and is currently unable to return to the United States.
“We want to go back to the U.S. as soon as possible, of course and we’re frantically working on that,” Pastor Chris Bell told NBC News. “We’re hoping that U.S. officials will help us get back. If they need to quarantine us back in the U.S., that’s fine, but we would love to go back to the United States.”
Stuck in a Bethlehem Hotel
Bell is the lead pastor of 3Circle Church in Fairhope, Alabama. He and members of the church’s staff left the U.S. on March 1 to go on a tour of the Holy Land. The group arrived in Israel on March 3 and stayed at the Angel Hotel in Bethlehem.
On March 4, the group got word that a Greek tourist who had stayed in the same hotel the week prior to their arrival had tested positive for the coronavirus since returning to Greece. The hotel initially sent the team away, but asked them return after a hotel employee tested positive for the virus. After some back and forth with the hotel and after consulting with the U.S. Embassy, the team ended up back at the Angel Hotel and were informed they would be tested for the virus and quarantined for 14 days.
“Now,” said the church, “the team of 13 3Circle Church staff members and employees of the hotel are in an unexplained quarantine at the hotel until further notice.” Six other hotel employees have since tested positive for the virus, and the seven hotel staff members are the first known cases of the coronavirus in the Palestinian Authority. However, the 3Circle group has yet to be tested, and the team members have been instructed to stay in separate rooms. Calling the situation “unknown and unclear,” the church said the group has been reaching out to U.S. officials for help so they can go home. “The team is hopeful that communication will come soon,” said the church. “The hotel employees have been incredibly helpful to the team during this process.”
The Jerusalem Post reports that, in addition to the Americans, around 25 Palestinians have been quarantined in the Bethlehem hotel, including the employees who contracted the virus.
It was after this situation developed, says Reuters, that Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh announced, “We have decided to declare a state of emergency in all Palestinian areas to confront the danger of the coronavirus and prevent it from spreading.”
Working with the Palestinian Authority, the Israeli military has put the city of Bethlehem on lockdown. The Palestinian government has closed all schools in its jurisdiction, cancelled foreign tourist reservations, and imposed a two-week ban on foreign guests at West Bank hotels.
Authorities have also closed the Church of the Nativity, revered as the site where Jesus was born, as well as other churches and mosques in the area. These closures will reportedly last for two weeks.
The closing of the Church of the Nativity is a severe blow to the local economy, particularly with Easter only a few weeks away. The Associated Press reports, “The Church of the Nativity receives some 10,000 tourists a day, according to Palestinian officials, and is expected to welcome tens of thousands of visitors during the Easter season.”
Meanwhile, the team members from 3Circle Church are trusting in God as they wait in the Bethlehem hotel for news on how to get home. Said the church, “The 3Circle team is asking for help and clarity, but most importantly, prayers. They know that God has a plan for all of this and that, ultimately, He will be glorified.”