Source: Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem
The Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem is due to partly reopen on Tuesday, 26 May, after weeks of being closed as part of the emergency Covid-19 lockdown.
Only 50 people will be allowed to enter at one time, observing strict safety measures. The announcement comes after the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre was opened for Mass with a limited congregation on Sunday.
A statement signed on Monday by the Custos of the Holy Land, Father Francis Patton, OFM, and the Greek Orthodox and Armenian Patriarchs of Jerusalem, Theophilus III and Nourhan Manougian, said that: "for security reasons and to avoid the risk of a new spread of the Covid-19 infection, the number will initially be limited to 50 people and the Basilica will be accessible only to those who have no fever or symptoms of infection and wear appropriate facial protection."
It will also be necessary to respect the minimum safety distance of two metres and "avoid any act of devotion that may involve physical contact such as touching and kissing the stones, icons, vestments and staff of the Basilica."
The closure of the Basilica of the Nativity, along with that of all churches and mosques in the Holy Land, was ordered last March 5 by the Palestinian Ministry of Health.
Fr Patton told Vatican News this gradual reopening will be a sort of "convalescence after a period of silence." He said that the Holy Land will not be able to welcome pilgrims from other countries until at least the end of the summer, but for the locals this moment represents a time of great joy and hope.
Fr Patton pointed out that throughout the lockdown, the Basilicas have continued to be a place of prayer and worship. He highlighted how the extraordinary circumstances have strengthened the ecclesial bond and and brought an even more powerful feeling of ecumenism between the Greek, the Latin and the Armenian communities who together, "representing the east and the west, really joined their voices to invoke the Lord for the end of the pandemic."
Regarding Pope Francis' exhortation to continue to be prudent and safeguard each other's health, Fr Patton said he embraces that message wholeheartedly.
He also reflected on the fact that "it shouldn't take a pandemic to make us attentive towards the most vulnerable people" in our societies. "From now on, what we are trying to do is to ensure prudent and necessary measures. But then we have to look forward to going back to normality," he said.
As we await effective therapies for the virus, he concluded, it is important to move beyond the fear of contagion "because that would mean no longer living authentic human relationships."
"We risk becoming people, who, out of fear, do not sleep at night, no longer shake hands with the other, no longer kiss their children. And that would mean entering a phase of 'anaesthetic anthropology' and it would be a terrible result. So prudence yes, respect yes, excessive fear no, anxiety no, and certainly not thinking that we should continue in this way forever."
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