Appeal for solidarity as Bethlehem shuts down

By John Pontifex

An urgent call for prayer and support for Christians in Bethlehem has come from two charities which are warning that the Coronavirus lockdown could plunge the faithful into desperate poverty.
With a state of emergency declared by the Palestinian Authority (PA) on 5 March, Bethlehem is in lockdown – tourism has ceased and the Church of the Nativity and other places of worship remain closed. The Israel Defence Forces, acting in cooperation with the PA, are enforcing checkpoints to stop people from entering or leaving Bethlehem and the official 30-day quarantine period for the city could be extended.
Friends of the Holy Land (FHL), which aids projects to sustain the Christian presence in the region, and the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), which helps persecuted Christians across the region, are calling for people to pray for their brethren in Bethlehem at this time.  
FHL executive director Brendan Metcalfe said: ‘While the lockdown precautionary action is understandable and reflects similar situations in other countries, the particular impact on the Bethlehem economy has been disastrous. The timing could not be worse especially in the lead-up to Holy Week and Easter – one of the key tourism seasons for the city.’
Tourism is Bethlehem's main industry and the lifeline of the city's economy with around two million visitors last year.
Metcalfe added: ‘Unlike the developed world, employment conditions for most in the city are fragile, hand to mouth, with no safety net of family or social support. Seventy-six per cent of families were assessed as living below the poverty line before this crisis. They’re now pushed beyond their means by sudden unemployment.’
Both ACN and FHL are calling for prayer for all those affected by the Coronavirus, especially people in Bethlehem at huge economic risk. Neville Kyrke-Smith, ACN’s national director, said: ‘Please join us and stand by those ACN helps in the Holy Land – especially the Christian families – and those who are enduring so much throughout the Middle East as they witness to Christ’s love this long Lent.
‘Let us also pray for all the people of Bethlehem who have been indirectly affected, those losing their jobs, for the many families who, in an already difficult and precarious situation, are now facing even greater economic and social difficulties. During this time of Lent, let us remain united and supportive in prayer above all, and in all possible forms and means of mutual help and support.’