Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity reopens as Palestinians ease coronavirus curbs
BETHLEHEM, West Bank (Reuters) - Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, the traditional birthplace of Jesus, reopened to worshippers and tourists on Tuesday as Palestinian authorities eased coronavirus restrictions in the occupied West Bank.
Amid lingering pandemic concerns, the church is capping access to 50 people at a time and requires that they be free of fever and wear protective masks. It had been shuttered since March 5, in a blow to Bethlehem's tourism industry.
"The birth of our Lord Jesus Christ gave hope to people more than 2,000 years ago, and opening the church today will, I think, give hope to the whole world that hopefully this pandemic will end - not only in Palestine but in the whole world," Palestinian Tourism Minister Rula Ma'ayah told Reuters.
Bethlehem is among areas where Palestinians exercise limited self-rule in the West Bank, under Israeli occupation. There have been 423 recorded coronavirus cases and two deaths in the West Bank.
On Monday, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said mosques, churches and businesses would reopen on Tuesday in an easing of anti-pandemic curbs, given the slow pace of infections.
The reopening of houses of worship, shops and factories coincides with the last day of the Eid El-Fitr holiday marking the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
"Today is a big Eid for Bethlehem and for believers," said Bishop Theophylactos, head of the Greek Orthodox Church in Bethlehem.
Muslim prayers at Jerusalem's al-Aqsa mosque compound are also expected to resume later this week after a nearly two-month pause, according to a statement published last week by Palestinian religious Waqf officials.
(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi, Mustafa Abu Ganeyeh, and Ali Sawafta; Editing by Dan Williams and Gareth Jones)