US Christian pilgrims quarantined near Bethlehem turn to prayer, kinship

‘It’s not a great situation, but we’re trying to make the best of it,’ says Alabama pastor whose group is in isolation in the West Bank

A Palestinian Authority policeman delivers supplies to the hotel staff which tested positive to coronavirus to a hotel in Bethlehem, West Bank, March 6, 2020. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)
A Palestinian Authority policeman delivers supplies to the hotel staff which tested positive to coronavirus to a hotel in Bethlehem, West Bank, March 6, 2020. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

AP — A group of US Christian pilgrims is turning to prayer and positive thinking as they cope with an open-ended coronavirus quarantine, confined to their West Bank hotel rooms while they wait for clearance to return to the United States.

Chris Bell, the lead pastor at the 3Circle Church in Fairhope, Alabama, said his 13-member group arrived last week for what was supposed to be a dream-of-a-lifetime trip to Israel and the West Bank. But after two days of touring Jerusalem and Bethlehem, they were notified that they might have been exposed to the virus after a group of Greek tourists staying in the same hotel had tested positive. They have been instructed by local authorities to remain in their hotel indefinitely.

“We’re really sad that things turned out the way they did,” Bell said. “It’s not a great situation, but we’re trying to make the best of it.”

He said the group is made up of church staff and spouses, and for almost everyone, it was their first time in the Holy Land. He said this familiarity and shared faith, along with generosity from the hotel and the local community, has helped them get through the ordeal.

He said the group is confined to one floor of the hotel. Each morning, he said people put on gloves and masks and meet in the hallway to pray together. They also have reading materials and wi-fi, allowing them to read the news, stream movies and remain in contact with the outside world.

“We love each other. Most of us have our spouses with us as well. So all of that human interaction, even though it’s through gloves, masks and at a distance really helps us get through every day,” he said.

Palestinian men, one of them wearing a protective mask, walk out of the Angel Hotel hotel in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on March 6, 2020. (Musa Al Shaer/AFP)

Bell said the hotel staff has treated his group with great hospitality, disinfecting rooms and delivering food in plastic bags. He said the local community has sent shipments of everything, from shawarma to bread and chips, and from fried chicken to medications. His group also remains in contact with Palestinian and Israeli authorities, as well as US consular officials at the American Embassy in Jerusalem.

The group has been tested for the virus and is waiting for the results, he said. In the meantime, no one is showing any symptoms of sickness. He said everyone remains hopeful that they will soon be allowed to leave and return home.

“We are people of faith. And we do not believe this is an accident,” Bell said. “We know that our God knows exactly where we are. And he has a plan for this and that he is going to sustain us, and he’s going to be faithful to us. And we just want to represent him well while we’re walking through us.”

The group’s hotel, the Angel, is located in Beit Jala, a village on the outskirts of Bethlehem, which has become the epicenter of the West Bank’s coronavirus scare. Fourteen of the 19 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the West Bank are hotel workers.

The hotel’s director, Maryana al-Arajah, who is among those infected, said that everyone diagnosed with the virus is in closed rooms and quarantined on one floor, while those at risk, such as the Americans, are on a separate floor.

She said workers who are not infected have been given gloves, masks and protective clothing while they deliver food and continue to disinfect the building. In all, 42 people are in quarantine, she said.

A priest walks past the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, a day after spraying sanitizers as a preventive measure against the coronavirus, on March 6, 2020. (Musa Al Shaer/AFP)

The coronavirus scare has generated a sense of panic throughout Bethlehem — the biblical town revered by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus Christ. Streets have been empty since the first cases were announced last week, and the Church of the Nativity, built on the grotto where tradition says Christ was born, has been closed to the public.

Israel, meanwhile, has confirmed 25 cases of coronavirus, including a 38-year-old man who was in serious condition on Sunday. Some 80,000 people have been ordered into 14-day home quarantine protectively, while the local travel sector has taken a beating as scores of flights in and out of the country have been canceled.

“We know there’s a lot of people hurting,” Bell said. “So we’re not just praying for ourselves. We’re praying for the hurting people of this area because we love them.”

“We’re just hoping that we are able to go home and have great memories and a great story to tell in the end, an epic story,” he said.

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