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World News

Israel's travel ban is a devastating blow says Anglican Dean in Jerusalem

by Donna Birrell

Israel is closing its borders to international travellers for two weeks to halt the spread of the new Coronavirus variant.
It follows concern over the Omicron strain of the virus which was first detected in South Africa. 

The ban was announced on the First Sunday of Advent and will have particular significance for people in the Holy Land who traditionally welcome pilgrims at this time of the year.

The Very Reverend Richard Sewell is Dean of St George's College in Jerusalem. He's been speaking to Premier about what the travel ban will mean for local people.

“I woke up to the news and I have to say it was a terrible disappointment. Because institutions like ours, which are in the business of running pilgrimages for people from all over the world and all the hotels and guides and restaurants who have been looking forward to receiving pilgrims starting really just in the last few weeks. It's such a disappointment, because all those plans now are on hold. 

“I think we all understand that the situation is very unclear. But  it really is a devastating blow.

“I don't think that very large numbers have booked to come and certainly Jerusalem and Bethlehem at the moment are still quite quiet. But there are groups about and an Anglican Episcopal priest who was with us in the cathedral this morning for worship had come to Jerusalem ahead of his group that were due to arrive today. But they did not even get on their plane, they cancelled and so he's got to turn around, and he's only had 48 hours in Jerusalem. So that group of 25 have not come and that will be repeated by numerous groups, so thousands of people that would have come, and who were booked into hotels and booked into restaurants and everything else – it’s a big loss. 

“We know the eyes of the world turn to Bethlehem at Christmas. This is not just a gathering of pilgrims and tourists from around the world, these are the local people whose livelihoods depend on it. So we value everybody's prayer and concern.

“We hope and pray that it will prove that this new variant is not as serious as some fear. And that, perhaps groups booked to come over Christmas and January will be able to come. But nobody can rely on that.  I think there will be a deep sense of foreboding. But we are a hopeful people and it's not just optimism, we are rooted in the hope of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which is the ultimate overcoming of the darkness.  We live in that state of hope, even though the evidence around us might give us grounds for feeling despondent or even despairing, but we cannot give into that. Whatever situation we face, we know that we have grace and goodness and the love of God to fall back on. And that that is where our hope is founded.

“Our Christian hope is not only for the times when things are looking bright and wonderful, they are as much for the times when the circumstances around us are really very difficult, as they are for many people, for different reasons all over the world.  Christian hope sustains us when our human outlook might make us despair. 

“Advent is a time when we learn deep truths. We hold on to the fact that light comes into the world and in the person of Jesus Christ, who is God's hope to us that we are not alone and we will not be abandoned and that God will draw us into times of beauty and wonder, whatever circumstances we face now.”

Israel is the first country to shut its borders completely in response to the new and potentially more contagious Omicron variant. The country says it will also use counter-terrorism phone-tracking technology in order to contain the spread of the strain.

Israelis entering the country, including those who are vaccinated, will be required to quarantine. A travel ban on foreigners coming from most African states was imposed on Friday.

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