Twenty-one Greek travelers who recently returned from a pilgrimage to religious sites in Israel have tested positive for coronavirus, Greece's health ministry confirmed on Thursday.
"Tourists from Greece who were staying in Israel and the Palestinian Territory between February 19 and 27, tested positive for coronavirus upon arrival,” said Health Ministry.
The pilgrims also appeared to have visited Egypt. The total number of COVID-19 cases in Greece now stands at 31.
Israel and the Palestinian Authority see hundreds of thousands of visitors every year who arrive specifically to see holy sites, including the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and the city of Nazareth among others.
Last month, 18 members of a group of South Korean pilgrims tested positive for coronavirus after a week-long trip to Israel organized by their Catholic church.
The Church of the Nativity, meanwhile, was ordered closed earlier in the day 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.
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."
In the meantime, Israel on Wednesday announced that it has extended its compulsory 14-day quarantine to nationals returning from Spain, Germany, France, Switzerland and Austria.
Travelers returning to Israel from China, Singapore, Thailand, Japan, Hong Kong, Macau, South Korea, and Italy have already been instructed to do the same.