Cardinal Vincent Nichols is leading an Easter appeal for prayers and solidarity for the people of the Holy Land amid growing concerns about the impact of the coronavirus - especially on those who are most vulnerable.
Embrace the Middle East, Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) and Friends of the Holy Land (FHL), Christian charities in the region, have warned of dire consequences as the virus spreads in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, with many at risk, especially in Gaza and elsewhere, where there is acute poverty and very poor living conditions
Leading the appeal for prayer and solidarity, Cardinal Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, said: "As we follow Jesus' last days in Jerusalem culminating in his passion, death and resurrection, we should remember the many people of the Holy Land enduring their own Way of the Cross in the midst of this pandemic."
"I ask everyone, as we pray for all those suffering from this vicious virus, to pray for the people of the Holy Land particularly as we approach Easter."
In an area, parts of which suffer from massive housing shortage, lack of clean water, acute problems with medical supplies, fears have been expressed that the disease could spread rapidly, with many people at acute risk because of poor diet and underlying health conditions.
With reports of just 256 ventilators in the West Bank and 87 in Gaza, concerns are growing of a health emergency in a region where latest data shows nearly 9,000 COVID-19 cases in Israel, with 54 deaths, and in Palestine, one death and 252 confirmed cases.
A lockdown has been in place since last month, creating an economic crisis during the peak tourist season for workers especially in Bethlehem, Jerusalem and elsewhere.
Describing difficulties of enforcing social distancing in densely populated areas where up to 15 people live in one house, FHL's Executive Director Brendan Metcalfe said: "In a place where there is no clean water, and where soap is in short supply and there is no hand-sanitiser, can you imagine telling people to go and wash their hands?
"While nobody is guaranteed protection from the virus, many of the people of the Holy Land are especially vulnerable and have absolutely no line of defence against this deadly disease - with no savings to fall back on, nothing."
Neville Kyrke-Smith, National Director of Aid to the Church in Need, said: "For many of our friends and project partners this is a time of survival. I know from calls and social media that Christians suffering in the Holy Land and Middle East are praying for us this Holy Week and Easter.
"We are united with them in prayer and hope - as we know the loving kindness of the faithful benefactors of ACN and other charities."
Tim Livesey, CEO of Embrace said: "Embrace is supporting a number of partners working in the West Bank and Gaza. With them, we are working to enable the most vulnerable in the community to access the support they need.
"In particular we help to fund Caritas Jerusalem, and other partners in Gaza, including the Near East Council of Churches and the Al Ahli Anglican hospital to maintain essential health services. With COVID-19 the healthcare system there is now more stretched than ever."
Friends of the Holy Land has launched the FHL Pentecost Challenge, a relief fund for struggling families, and Aid to the Church in Need is stepping up pastoral relief programmes for families and Church communities, especially in Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
Friends of the Holy Land - www.friendsoftheholyland.org.uk
Embrace - www.embraceme.org/
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