Last Friday, Bethlehem Bible College’s spring semester came to a sudden stop as COVID-19 was discovered among tourists and the whole town was quarantined.
Bethlehem is often described as peaceful in Christmas songs. It is again this week, but not for a good reason.
Palestinian and Israeli officials agreed, the town should be quarantined. Mercy Aiken, a volunteer at the college, says, “Friday night, we got word that the checkpoint was going to be closed that people walk through to go to Jerusalem. And so a bunch of people left in the middle of the night.”
All churches, mosques, and gathering places were closed. The Church of the Nativity was closed and sanitized. Citizens were encouraged to stay indoors.
Aiken says that she herself only went out to get food. She felt conspicuous walking through the quiet streets, knowing that it was Americans who brought the virus in the first place. “If you are a foreigner walking around, you don’t want to add more stress, but it’s not like there’s a lot of people out on the street. You might see one or two cars going by a minute. It’s very, very, very low-key, the streets are pretty much empty.”
Aiken describes the city as more peaceful than otherwise. One street in the town, near the separation wall, often features protests and political demonstrations. During the lockdown, Aiken saw children playing in this area.
Not only that, but citizens are facing the outbreak with great solidarity. Aiken relates this story: “I just saw, about an hour ago, a car drive down the street that was praying. It was blasting prayers from its loudspeakers. And it had a big orthodox picture of Mary and Jesus. They had a big sensor and they were burning incense. They were driving around Bethlehem filling it with incense and, and singing prayers. So I think the town has come together in a really beautiful way.”
Impacts of the lockdown
So how long will the lockdown last? Aiken says, ”This was agreed on by the Palestinian Authority and Israel. So, it was a mutual agreement that Bethlehem is basically locked down for 30 days. And I suppose at the end of 30 days, we will find out if the virus has been contained enough so that people can travel once again.” Aiken says many in the city are worried about the economic impact of such a quarantine since the city’s economy is so reliant on tourism.
Aiken had to get other volunteers to the airport soon after the lockdown. On the way, she was stopped by soldiers who told them no one was allowed to leave Bethlehem at all. But they tried a different route and got the volunteers on their plane. Aiken says not even the soldiers all seem to know what is going on.
Aiken says the town expects to have a full curfew soon. “Yesterday, we found out that there are now 26 cases of the coronavirus that had been diagnosed in the West Bank: 25 in Bethlehem. . . . Most of the people in Bethlehem that had been diagnosed with it are Christian, and they’re part of the evangelical Christian community here. So please keep them in your prayers.”
The Christian community in Bethlehem
Bethlehem Bible College itself is almost entirely deserted except for Aiken and a couple of students. People are trying to work from home, but the college and students are facing a semester abruptly canceled.
“This is a time for Christians,” Aiken says, “to demonstrate wisdom, leadership, faith, service, and care for neighbors. And that’s definitely what I have seen within the Christian community here.” Pray that Christ would be glorified by his Church in Bethlehem.
Aiken has no plans to leave herself, despite questions about it from loved ones. The virus, she points out, has cropped up everywhere in the world, including the United States. For now, she will hang out in the empty, quiet city where Jesus was born.