Paul Calvert chats to Pastor Nihad from Immanuel church in Bethlehem about how coronavirus is affecting them and how the church is responding.
Paul: The coronavirus hit Bethlehem on the 5th of March, how did that affect Bethlehem and how did that affect the church?
Pastor Nihad: Yes this was very, very difficult because when it started here in Bethlehem, which is a tourist city, many of the hotels had groups of people from different places in the world. So it started in one hotel with a group from Greece and when they went back many tested positive for coronavirus. They then started by closing this hotel and then the whole city. Quarantine started on the 5th of March but it really handicapped the whole city, a curfew was implemented so nobody would walk on the street and this really had a bad effect because people were not ready for that. This was a shock for everybody. At that time other places in the West Bank did not close down, only Bethlehem. But later on some cases were found in other cities in the West Bank and the Palestinian side so the whole West Bank was closed and quarantined. But in this quarantine time people started worrying, what will happen as Bethlehem is a tourist city as I said, it depends on tourism and now tourism stops and we don't know when it will come back because this is a world wide problem that affected the whole world. people who are thinking of travelling would even for tourist reasons they will think twice and three times before they will travel because of the danger and also economically it has been affecting the whole world so many will not think of travelling in this at least this year. I would say a third of the city's population works in tourism, hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops, souvenir factories etc and this will all be affect. I heard from the ministry of tourism that at least 22,000 people work in this industry in different places that have been effected which means there could be 22,000 families affected by this collapse of tourism in this year. Besides that we have workers who work on a daily or weekly pay and this is also difficult because we now have many workers with no pay. Our main problem is that we as Palestinians do not have a social plan from the government towards the unemployment, there is no plan which means everybody is on their own. We do not have compensation for losing jobs, so unemployment is very high in Bethlehem. The Palestinian Authority offered like $200 for 120,000 families or workers, but this doesn't cover everybody and it is a one time payment and then what happens when that runs out? So the picture at this point is that many people in Bethlehem are unemployed because of tourism being effected, workers have been stopped, many shops have closed, factories are closed and the whole economy is really suffering. We have many people frustrated, worried, don't know what to do next and there is no plan from the government for what to do next. So we are working and ministering amongst people who are really loosing hope and don't see light at the end of the tunnel. I see the rising need but we also we see the people are getting depressed.
Paul: Has Bethlehem always been a bit of a poor city?
Pastor Nihad: Yes, I'd say compared to other West Bank cities, we don't have industry except tourism and we don't have a very strong economy like Hebron, Nablus or Ramallah. So Bethlehem has always suffered from high unemployment. For example in the second intifada (uprising) which started in the year 2000, at the year 2002-3 we almost had a 60-70% unemployment rate at one point then before Covid-19 we had a 38% unemployment rate. And now with the virus, people losing jobs and also tourism stopping nobody can predict that yet. So yes we have suffered from this high unemployment in the area of Bethlehem for quite some time.
Paul: Are you getting calls and messages from people: "Pastor we need help"?
Pastor Nihad: Oh yes, every day. We are at this point working with hopeless people and the massage we are giving our people is that Hope is found in Jesus and nobody else can give you hope. So when we live with this hope and people around us see that we as a church, we as people of Christ do have hope, which means we have peace. We are not worried what tomorrow holds because we know who holds tomorrow. We're not worried, we have joy we talk about the protection the guidance also the provision of our Lord who will take care of us. We're not worried and people will see that as you start testifying for hope in the midst of hopelessness. So on one side we give the gospel, we give Jesus, we witness as to where our hope comes from. But on the other hand we need to show that hope in a practical way, so we give the gospel. It says in the bible that Jesus was going around healing people preaching the kingdom of God and doing good among the people. So as well as giving the gospel and witnessing to the society we also witness through practical ministries like helping the poor, we give out food packages to families that can be used for at least minimum 2-3 weeks. We give out finances to some families to pay a few bills so things can continue like electricity, water, things that keep the house going and the third area we are helping in is the medical area where people need medicine and cannot pay to get to get it. Every day we have people calling. Just this morning before I talked to you a lady with 5 children, her husband has no work as he was working in olive wood factory to make souvenirs and they were depending on his weekly pay. For two months she said, "Please Pastor we have problems, we don't have food, we don't have anything at home please come and look, come and see what we have. We need your help, we need to buy some medicine, we need to pay a bill, and please can you help us." We are not only helping Christian but Muslims too. First our brothers and sisters in the church, we see that at least everybody has their basic needs met, then we go out and we reach the society. Due to Ramadan we did help some Muslim families with food packages, they were so happy, some families said, "You Christians, you are the only ones who came in and gave us something, why do you do that?" And so it is a witness to our society in a practical way.
Paul: How has this changed the church itself? I guess you're not having any meetings at the moment?
Pastor Nihad: This has been a shock for many, to stay at home but also it gave us the meaning of a church. Church is not just a building, it's not a pulpit, Church is people. Thank the Lord for the internet, social media, Zoom meetings and apps. Every evening we have a Zoom meeting where we meet from 6 o'clock to 8 o 'clock. We are praying and you have the church, almost one forth of the church is meeting on this app. Every evening praying for the situation that is going on and for the church. These prayers on this zoom meeting had elevated the church's spiritual approach to the situation. We prayed for repentance one week and then the spirit opened our eyes to be standing in the gap so we started standing and asking for mercy for our people and so on. Then it came on another level so you can see that our prayers were going from one level to the other. Now we pray for the harvest, we say God bring repentance so that people will open their eyes and see you in the midst of all of that. So these prayers have elevated the spiritual approach to the situation and any situation like this we thank the Lord for the Holy Spirit is working in our midst on this. We are doing live streaming services, only me and the piano as well as 2 or 3 people doing this live stream and it has brought the family together. The idea that home is church also, brought the family together sitting and bringing the Lord in their home, this has been also a touch on each family in such a situation like this, so we thank the Lord that in this time that we came forward on the spiritual level of the church, preparing the church also for what is coming. If the Lord is sending a harvest we want to be prepared labourers in this harvest.
Paul: Has this brought people closer to God and do you see God in this big problem?
Pastor Nihad: On the church level yes, I have seen that people have come closer especially through the prayer meetings that we are having on Zoom and also around us we see that it has an effect on people. People started asking more questions, wanting answers like where is God in all of that? Is he there? Did he cause this? Is he angry at us? Why would he be angry? These such questions have given us opportunity to speak to them and we have seen many who are getting closer to the Lord. I hear from other churches that their members are getting closer in the meetings that they are doing on the internet. So yes we do see some effect. Muslims in our area are also asking questions. We may not see a big revival and salvation of souls but we are praying for that and we are seeing that God is moving hearts towards that.
Paul: How do you see the immediate future of Bethlehem, are you concerned?
Pastor Nihad: Yes, the rising need is making us very much concerned, people around us are just very much concerned and afraid of tomorrow. This city is dependent on tourism and the Minister of Tourism is saying if we start getting back to normal there will be restrictions put in place for hotels such as only being able to have 25% capacity, which is making hotel owners very worried. Society is very worried about what kind of employment we are going to have if we don't have tourism. The second worry for me as a pastor is how does God want to use the leaders in the next few days, few weeks, few months coming, how do we continue to witness to our society, we are praying for that. I know God will give us leadership, he will not leave us like that but it's a concern, is there something new coming up, are we ready for what is coming, make us ready and so on.
Paul: What is your prayer for the future of Bethlehem?
Pastor Nihad: That a revival will break through to be honest. Economy doesn't change a society for the better, it changes only the living standard. Maybe but for me as a pastor I would love to see that God will bring back a revival to Bethlehem where people will be revived spiritually, they will come back to the Lord and I am sure as Jesus said, "Seek yea first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all of this will be added unto you." That God will bring employment and bring economy and that the people will be awakened and see the Lord in the midst of this because this is Bethlehem, this is where Jesus was born, this is where the angels were singing, Glory to God in the highest, peace on Earth, Joy to all mankind, this is where it all took place. This is my concern if we are far away from that. Please God I want to see us coming back to this where we see Jesus in our midst so my prayer is Lord may you like Isaiah was saying "May you tear the heavens and come down, may you open heaven and come down and really to see you here and people will realize that you are the truth and the life for them."
Paul: If people would like to partner with you and maybe help financially because you are going out and giving food to people, to families who are struggling at this moment, how can they get in contact with you?
Pastor Nihad: You can send us an email and talk to us about it my email is firstname.lastname@example.org from there we can give more instructions how to give.
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