Baptists and other evangelicals in the birth city of Jesus find themselves impacted by the global coronavirus outbreak as governmental leaders mandate the closing of schools and other institutions. Bethlehem Bible College, an evangelical school with several Baptists involved in leadership, announced Sunday (March 8) it’s “closed until further notice.”
“Since last Thursday [March 5], the city of Bethlehem has been placed in lockdown in the aftermath of the first Palestinian cases of the Coronavirus that were regrettably discovered in Bethlehem,” BBC President Jack Sara explained in a statement. “The streets are almost empty and all tourist buses to and from Bethlehem were banned.”
Founded in 1979 by Baptist minister Bishara Awad, who led the school until 2012, BBC today has about 125 students. The school sits in the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the Palestinian Territories. As of March 9, all but one of the 25 Palestinian cases of the infection have been found in Bethlehem. Globally, there are more than 110,000 cases — and more than 3,800 deaths — in more than 100 countries. Israel has another 39 cases in addition to the 25 in the Palestinian Territories.
Yohanna Katanacho, a Baptist scholar who works at BBC and Nazareth Evangelical College, told Word&Way the BBC was impacted after “the Palestinian authority decided to prevent the spread of the corona virus by closing all educational institutions and other places of big crowds.”
“All the staff and students are okay, but there is a lot of fear in Bethlehem,” he added. “Prayers are appreciated.”
Katanacho previously talked about BBC and ministering in Bethlehem in episode 47 of the Word&Way podcast “Baptist Without An Adjective.” As he noted in the interview, the city today “depends on tourism a lot,” which makes the local economy especially vulnerable to disruptions by coronavirus.
Among the sites closed March 5 due to the coronavirus was the Church of the Nativity, which was built on the place long rumored to be the site of Jesus’s birth. The Church receives about 10,000 tourists a day, and the Easter season is one of the busier times.
Thirteen Americans from a Southern Baptist church are in lockdown in Bethlehem while they wait for their coronavirus test results. Chris Bell, pastor of 3Circle Church in Fairhope, Alabama, told Baptist Press that he and 12 members of the church have been quarantined at a hotel after traveling to the city during a Holy Land tour.
Although Christians used to make up a majority of the city’s population, the number has steady declined from about 85 percent in 1947 to 40 percent in 1998 to just 16 percent in 2016. Many Christians have left to seek economic opportunities in other places, as well as a result of concerns about violence.
As part of the territories occupied by Israel since 1967, Bethlehem today sits behind a wall Israel started building in 2000. With the wall next to the city and cutting it off from Jerusalem just a few miles away, travel into Bethlehem from Israel or back out requires moving through Israeli security checkpoints — and Israel often blocks travel by Palestinians out of the West Bank or by Israeli citizens into the territories.
Sara noted that BBC’s shutdown over coronavirus concerns could impact the school’s biannual Christ at the Checkpoint, a conference designed to consider “what it means to follow Christ in the shadow of walls and conflict.” The sixth version of the conference is set for June, and Sara said he hopes to know by the end of April whether they will be able to hold it.
Like Katanacho, Sara urged prayers for BBC and Bethlehem.
“In the midst of these dramatic circumstances, please pray with us that Jesus Christ — the great healer who traveled through towns and villages curing every disease and illness — may lend his healing hand and heal every sick person,” Sara wrote in his statement. “May he heal us not only from disease, but also from fear, from pride, from sorrow, and from uncertainty, and may he fill our hearts with faith that all what we need is his peace.”