Palestine closes Church of Nativity amid coronavirus fears
Palestinian officials on Thursday closed the storied Church of the Nativity in the biblical city of Bethlehem indefinitely over fears of the new coronavirus, weeks ahead of the busy Easter holiday season.
The announcement by the Palestinian tourism ministry threatened to devastate the vital tourism industry in the town where Jesus is believed to have been born. The spread of the virus across the Middle East has already disrupted worship at other major holy sites.
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.
The Palestinian health ministry later said a total of seven Palestinians from Bethlehem have tested positive for the virus, the first cases reported in the Palestinian territories.
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.
Built on the site where Christians believe Jesus was born in a manger, the Church of the Nativity is one of several tourist and holy sites to shut their doors over concerns about the virus, which has infected tens of thousands of people and killed more than 3,000 globally.
Palestine is amongst a number of Middle Eastern countries to take precautions in holy sites to prevent the spread of the coronavirus outbreak.
On Wednesday, Iran, the epicentre of the virus in the region, announced the cancellation of Friday prayers in all major cities in a bid to slow down the spread of coronavirus.
Friday is the main congregational day of prayer in Islam, and traditionally an important event for Iran's clerical rulers.
The Islamic Republic also said it would set up checkpoints to limit travel between major cities and urged citizens to reduce their use of paper money to help slow the outbreak, which has killed at least 107 people in the country.
Saudi Arabia announced on Wednesday it was expanding a ban on foreigners visiting Mecca and Medina to include citizens and residents.