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Americans stuck inside Bethlehem hotel after area put on coronavirus lockdown

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By Saphora Smith and Lawahez Jabari and Paul Goldman  with NBC News World News
Image: Tourist buses wait at an Israeli checkpoint
Tourist buses wait at an Israeli checkpoint as preventive measures are taken against the coronavirus, in Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, on Friday.   -   Copyright  Ammar Awad

Thirteen Americans have been quarantined in a hotel outside the biblical city of Bethlehem and are unable to leave as the coronavirus epidemicspreads in the region,the pastor who is traveling with the church group told NBC News on Friday.

The area was placed on lockdown on Thursday to curb the spread of the virus.

Chris Bell, a pastor at 3Circle Churchin Fairhope, Alabama, said he, other staff members at his church and some of their spouses were among those who have been stuck inside the Angel Hotelin the town of Beit Jala in the Bethlehem region since Thursday.

Tourist buses wait at an Israeli checkpoint as preventive measures are taken against the coronavirus, in Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, on Friday.
Tourist buses wait at an Israeli checkpoint as preventive measures are taken against the coronavirus, in Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, on Friday. Ammar Awad

"We want to go back to the U.S. as soon as possible of course and we're frantically working on that," he told NBC News by telephone from the hotel in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. "We're hoping that U.S. officials will help us get back. If they need to quarantine us back in the U.S. that's fine but we would love to go back to the United States."

Asked about American tourists stuck in Bethlehem a U.S. embassy official told NBC News: "We are aware of reports and we are providing assistance."

The church group was stranded as Israel, in conjunction with the Palestinian Authority, ordered its army and defense forces to close the city on Thursday after local officials said seven Palestinians had tested positive for the virus in Bethlehem.

Neither Israelis nor Palestinians are able to enter or exit the city until further notice, the Israeli Defense Minister Naftali Bennett said in a statement. There are at least 16 confirmed cases in Israel, according to the Israeli Health Ministry's website.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas declared Thursday that a state of emergency would be implemented in Palestinian territories for one month in a bid to tackle the virus. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh announced that all schools, universities would be closed and movement between the different areas of the territories should be limited to cases of "extreme necessity" starting Friday morning.

Shtayyeh also said that all bookings for foreign tourists in hotels would be cancelled and tourist and religious areas would be closed, but he did not address what would happen to those tourists already staying in the Palestinian territories.

The storied Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where Jesus is believed to have been born, was among the churches closed on Thursday.

Bell, 42, said no one in his group was showing symptoms of the virus and they had not yet been tested despite changing their plans and returning to the hotel when instructed by hotel staff on Thursday. Local police had also told the group to remain in the hotel until further notice, he added.

The alarm was raised at the Angel Hotel when a Greek tourist who had recently stayed there tested positive on his return to Greece, Bell said. Now, those inside the four-star lodgings just wanted to be tested and to find some clarity as to what happens next, said Bell, stressing that the staff at the hotel had been extremely helpful.

"We just want more information," he said, adding that the morale of the group remained high because of their faith.

"We trust God that he has a plan for us and he knows exactly where we are," said Bell. "He has not forgotten us."