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.