The mayor of Bethlehem on Thursday said Christmas celebrations in the birthplace of Jesus will be limited to just a handful of people this year as Palestinian officials announced a strict new lockdown across the West Bank due to a soaring coronavirus outbreak.
In an interview, Mayor Anton Salman said his town would hold its traditional welcoming ceremony for the Latin Patriarch, who is usually greeted by children's marching bands as he arrives from nearby Jerusalem. But he said the scout bands would be limited only to local residents because of the new lockdown restrictions.
"We will observe all health protocols in terms of social distance, wearing masks and safety measures to prevent the transmission of the virus," he said. He said the number of participants "will be less than dozens, as the number will be very limited."
The Christmas season is usually the highlight of the year in Bethlehem, where Christians believe Jesus was born, as thousands of pilgrims from around the world gather around its iconic Christmas treet and attend religious services at the Church of the Nativity. But the coronavirus has decimated the tourism industry, and shops, restaurants and hotels are shuttered.
With the number of coronavirus cases soaring, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh on Thursday announced plans for a new lockdown across the West Bank. The restrictions include overnight curfews beginning at 7pm and a full 24-hour lockdown on Friday and Saturday, the Palestinian weekend. Most businesses will be closed during the curfews, and most travel between cities is banned.
Shtayyeh said arrangements for prayers are still being made. But it appears that Midnight Mass will be restricted to religious leaders and a handful of dignitaries.
Salman said the restrictions mean that people from elsewhere in the West Bank or neighboring Israel will not be allowed to enter town for Christmas. He said Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has been invited, but the 85-year-old leader decided not to attend because of the health situation.
Palestinian officials on Thursday reported 1,134 new cases of the coronavirus, bringing the total number of infections in Palestinian areas of the West Bank to 86,594. Over 860 Palestinians in the territory have died.