Thirteen Americans suspected of being exposed to the coronavirus during a trip to the Holy Land are in quarantine near Bethlehem with armed guards stationed outside their hotel.
Chris Bell, 42, lead pastor of the 3 Circle Church in Fairhope, Alabama, traveled to Israel with 12 others in his faith community on Monday after being told that the country was not under any immediate risk from the coronavirus.
Bell says he now regrets embarking on what was going to be the ‘trip of a lifetime’ after the group was called back to the Angel Hotel in Beit Jala near Bethlehem and placed into quarantine.
A Greek man who previously stayed at the hotel was diagnosed with the coronavirus and there are now more than 40 members of staff and visitors trapped under an armed guard inside the building until they complete their 14 days of quarantine.
Bell is calling on the United States government to intervene and fly the group home to continue the remainder of their quarantine, saying ‘we need to get home’.
No member of the group is showing symptoms and their test results are expected Saturday.
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Chris Bell, an American pastor, speaks to Reuters from inside the Angel Hotel where he and his church group have been quarantined amid coronavirus precautions in Beit Jala, Bethlehem
Palestinian security forces seal off the Angel Hotel in Beit Jala following suspected cases of coronavirus. Local churches, mosques and other institutions were closed Thursday
‘Even if we need to be quarantined, we’re hoping that the United States, our own country, will possibly fly us home,’ Bell said in a video chat with Reuters from the second floor of the Angel Hotel.
‘And if they need to quarantine us there for a time we understand that. But, you know, we need to get home.’
The group arrived in Israel on Monday and spent several days exploring before checking out of their hotel on Thursday with the intention of traveling on to Sea of Galilee, the Jordan River and Petra.
Authorities quickly summoned them back after four hotel workers tested positive and they were placed in quarantine and tested Friday. The workers were tested after a Greek tourist who stayed in the hotel between February 23 and 29 was diagnosed.
The group expects to be given their results over the weekend and are then hoping to make their way home with the aid of the U.S. government.
‘The level of frustration is really not with an individual or a person, but it’s kind of the overall situation that it’s hard to get information, so it’s been very hard to get clear information, so there’s been far more questions than there has been answers,’ Bell told Fox.
‘All we need are prayers and a clear bill of health.’
Chris Bell is pictured far right with the 3 Circle Church group from Alabama
Chris Bell, pictured here in Israel, only enjoyed two days of the trip before quarantine
Chris Bell, pictured, has called on the U.S. government to fly the group home
The Angel Hotel was the first area of coronavirus concern in the Bethlehem area and more than 40 people, mostly Palestinians, are being kept inside the building.
After seven people in Bethlehem tested positive this week, the Palestinian Authority put restrictions on foreign tourist travel and later declared a 30-day state of emergency.
The army and defense forces closed down the city, including the Church of the Nativity, believed to be the birthplace of Jesus, and local mosques.
Neither Israelis nor Palestinians are able to enter or exit the city until further notice.
Elsewhere in the West Bank, Palestinian security forces staffed checkpoints and turned foreigners away, while schools, colleges, kindergartens and national parks were ordered closed.
There were 16 confirmed cases in Israel as of Saturday afternoon.
The Alabama church group caught up in the lock down were this weekend able to face time into their church service at home as the community prayed for their safe return.
The group has not left its hotel floor and everyone wears gloves and masks when they leave their rooms, said the pastor, adding that his wife Nan was with him and their three children in the United States being looked after by friends and family.
A man in a protective suit walks outside Angel Hotel where, according to a Palestinian government official, a group of American visitors have been quarantined in Beit Jala
Armed forces are being used to keep the hotel under quarantine, pictured Saturday
There are more than 40 people, mostly Palestinians, quarantined in the building
Bell thanked the Palestinian, Israeli and U.S, officials who were dealing with their care, and said the hotel had made sure they were getting enough food, water and medicine.
‘We were told by multiple sources that it was one of the safest places in the world when it came to Coronavirus – that there were hardly any cases in the entire region,’ he told WJLA.
‘We are all missing our kids and missing home, and you’re cooped up in a hotel, you can’t do anything,’ he added when speaking to WLOX.
‘That is very difficult. So, if you think, two weeks it will really be hard to deal with it. So, we’re thinking let’s get through the morning. Let’s see if we can do that. And then, let’s have lunch.
‘And then, let’s get through the afternoon, and what we’re finding is if we can do that enough we can get through this.’
Palestinian security forces wearing masks and gloves were stationed around the hotel on Saturday, as they have been since the first cases were announced
An official from the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem said it was aware of the reports of the group in quarantine.
‘Due to privacy considerations, we have no further details to share,’ she said.
The church called the quarantined group this weekend to pray for their safety
Palestinian officials announced on Thursday that the Church of the Nativity in the biblical city of Bethlehem would close indefinitely after the first suspected cases of coronavirus were reported on their territory.
The move comes just weeks before Easter, when thousands of pilgrims come to worship at the site – built on the reputed birthplace of Christ.
The Church of the Nativity was closed after suspicions that four Palestinians had caught the virus, prompting a flurry of measures that included banning all tourists from the West Bank for an unspecified amount of time and shutting down other places of worship in Bethlehem for two weeks.
Built on the grotto where Christians believe Jesus was born, the church joins a list of prominent tourist and holy sites to shutter their doors in the wake of rising fears over the spread of the virus, which has infected tens of thousands and killed more than 3,000 globally.
‘We respect the instructions of the relevant authorities,’ said Wadie Abunassar, an adviser to Catholic church officials in the Holy Land. ‘Safety comes first.’
Just before 4 p.m., a bearded clergyman walked outside and locked the church’s wooden door with a large key. Just a few foreign tourists milled about.
Palestinian police officers stand guard outside the Church of the Nativity that was closed as a preventive measure against the coronavirus in Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank
Private health workers walk out of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem after spraying sanitizers as a preventive measure against the coronavirus after the church was closed
Palestinian security forces wearing masks disinfect their hands next to a hotel that has been sealed off in the town of Beit Jala following suspected cases of coronavirus COVID-19
Artur Joba, a Polish tourist visiting with his girlfriend, said he had decided to cut his stay in Bethlehem short and would head to nearby Jerusalem on Friday.
‘I heard they found the coronavirus infection here and we decided to leave,’ he said. ‘We can’t stay here any more. I’m going back to my hotel now to look for a hotel elsewhere.’
Saif Saboh, a Palestinian tour guide, said a number of groups have canceled visits in recent days, fearing the virus.
He said he has stopped shaking hands or getting too close to tourists. When he gets home in the evening, he said he washes and keeps away from his children.
‘I’m terrified,’ he said. ‘It is serious and any tourist could be infected.’
The virus has disrupted Muslim worship across the Middle East. Saudi Arabia banned pilgrimages to the holy city of Mecca, while Iran has canceled Friday’s Islamic prayers in major cities.
The Church of the Nativity receives some 10,000 tourists a day, according to Palestinian officials.
It is expected to welcome tens of thousands of visitors during the busy Easter season. If the measures remain in place, the fledgling Palestinian tourism industry could take a walloping.
Tourists currently in the West Bank were instructed to leave once their bookings end.
Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity ordered closed over coronavirus fears
The Church of the Nativity was ordered closed on Thursday and foreign tourists were banned from West Bank hotels after four suspected coronavirus cases were found in the Palestinian town of Bethlehem.
The measures announced by the Palestinian Authority’s tourism ministry came as a particular blow to the Biblical town, whose businesses are largely dependent on Christian visitors to the church, built on the traditional site of Jesus’s birth.
Just three months ago Bethlehem was hailing its best Christmas for two decades, the mayor and hoteliers said, even better than the 1.5 million visitors it received in 2018.
The Latin Patriarchate of the Holy Land said the Church of the Nativity, which was first founded in 339 and rebuilt and extended over the centuries, would be closed for two weeks, along with other churches and mosques in the Bethlehem area.
The ban on foreign guests at West Bank hotels will also last two weeks, the tourism ministry said.
‘This affects us dramatically,’ said Joey Canavati, manager of the 58-room Alexander Hotel in Bethlehem. ‘Our workers are essentially laid off for the next 14 days. We will be closed down completely. It destroyed our business from every perspective.’
Canavati said groups of tourists from the United States, Poland and Cameroon had already cancelled their bookings.
Palestinian health officials said they were examining whether four workers at another hotel in Bethlehem had contracted coronavirus from tourists who had stayed there recently.
Police surrounded the hotel, as authorities awaited the results of laboratory tests. There have been no confirmed cases of the disease in the West Bank. Fifteen people have been diagnosed with the virus in neighbouring Israel.
The Palestinian governor of the West Bank town of Nablus on Thursday ordered its Muslim and Christian holy sites shut as a public health precaution.
The Palestinian Authority exercises limited self-rule in the Israeli-occupied West Bank under interim peace accords.
On Wednesday, Israel ordered travellers arriving from Germany, France, Spain, Austria and Switzerland to go into home quarantine over coronavirus concerns and cancelled a military exercise with troops from the U.S. European Command.
The measure effectively cut off foreign tourism from those countries, whose citizens, the Health Ministry said, would not be allowed into Israel unless they could show they had made quarantine arrangements ahead of time.
Israel has already imposed the edict with regard to flights from Italy, China and Singapore.