Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, built on the spot where Christians believe Jesus was born, reopened on Tuesday more than two months after closing in the face of the coronavirus.
A handful of priests from different Christian denominations stood watch as the door to the church in the West Bank was opened, an AFP photographer reported.
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, where the faithful believe Christ was born in a manger.
“The opening of the church today gives hope to the world that this pandemic will end,” Rula Maaya, Palestinian Tourism Minister, said.
“We hope that the church will keep on welcoming millions of worshippers”, as they did before coronavirus, she added.
The church had been closed since March 5 when an outbreak of COVID-19 was detected in Bethlehem.
Initially, only 50 people are allowed in the church at one time and visitors must wear face coverings and observe social distancing, a joint statement by the churches that control the site said.
Kissing or touching the stones, including in the grotto, will be forbidden.
Small numbers of worshippers entered the church after it opened to pray and light candles, many wearing facemasks.
The Bethlehem outbreak began with a group of Greek tourists who visited the city, including the Church of the Nativity, prompting church authorities to sterilise the site.
The Palestinian government swiftly took measures to prevent the spread of the disease and in recent weeks few new cases have been reported in the West Bank.
On Monday, Palestinian prime minister Mohammed Shtayyeh announced an end to the lockdown.
Imad Kamel, a priest with the Latin community in Bethlehem said he wanted to “thank God for protecting everyone in the country from this pandemic, which has hurt so many people around the world.”
Separately, in Jerusalem, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre — built on the spot most Christians believe Jesus was crucified and then resurrected — has partially reopened in recent days.
The main door to the church remains closed to prevent overcrowding, but groups of worshippers can enter in coordination with the Christian denominations that control the site, a church official said.