The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which houses the spot where Christians believe Jesus was born, has reopened after nearly three months of closure due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The reopening of one of Christianity’s most sacred shrines on Tuesday was part of an easing of restrictions across the occupied West Bank announced by the Palestinian Authority (PA). Mosques, shops, parks and restaurants will also gradually reopen.
The Church of the Nativity was closed in early March ahead of the busy Easter holiday season that typically draws tens of thousands of visitors and worshippers. On Tuesday morning, a handful of priests from different Christian denominations stood watch as the door to the church was opened.
Once inside, the head of the Greek Orthodox Church in Bethlehem, Bishop Theophylactos, kissed an icon while a priest sprayed holy water in the grotto of the church, the spot where it is believed Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus.
Bishop Theophylactos called the reopening a day of celebration for Bethlehem since “all the people now can enter the church and pray like before”.
Initially, only 50 people will be allowed in the church at one time, and visitors must wear face coverings and observe physical distancing, according to a joint statement from the churches that control the site.
Kissing or touching the stones, including in the grotto, will be forbidden.
On Monday, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh announcing the easing of coronavirus restrictions, said the “gradual return to normal life” was being taken with caution.
Shtayyeh warned, however, that restrictions would return should the numbers of new infections begin to rise again.
Palestinian health officials have confirmed more than 350 coronavirus cases in the West Bank and 55 in the besieged Gaza Strip, with three virus-related deaths reported across both territories and 357 recoveries.
Most of the cases in the West Bank were traced to Palestinians who worked inside Israel, which has faced a much larger outbreak.
Israeli authorities have begun to gradually reopen schools, places of worship and markets as the spread of the coronavirus has slowed. Israel’s Ministry of Health has reported more than 16,700 confirmed infections and 279 related deaths.
More than 14,000 people have recovered.