Washington D.C., Mar 12, 2020 / 08:00 am (CNA).- This week the Israeli government announced that, from March 12, any foreign tourist who enters the country will be placed in a 14-day quarantine to halt the spread of COVID-19. The announcement thousands would-be pilgrims planning to visit the Holy Land, and resulted in changed flights, and canceled trips.
Prior to the quarantine, religious sites in Bethlehem were already shut down over fears of coronavirus, leaving pilgrims already in the Holy Land unable to visit the location of the birth of Christ.
CNA spoke to several pilgrims–and would-be pilgrims–about how the closures and quarantine have affected them.
Jenna Drummond was supposed to make her first pilgrimage to Israel as part of a group of 40, sponsored by the Catholic University of America’s Institute of Human Ecology and set to travel over spring break. Just days before she was supposed to leave, she was told that the trip would not be happening.
“The whole cancellation was a fiasco, because no one actually knew if the trip was supposed to be canceled by CUA or by Passages,” she said. Passages is an organization which takes groups of Christian college students on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and was booked to administer Catholic University’s tour.
“We found out Wednesday night CUA canceled all study abroad and spring breaks abroad, so the group didn’t know if that included us. We got the final cancelation around 5 p.m. on Thursday from both the Institute and Passages,” she said. The pilgrims from the university were supposed to depart for Israel Sunday evening.
While the Isaeli government’s quarantine is intended to stop new cases arriving in the country, the would-be pilgrim said that she would have preferred to travel for her own sake.
Drummond called the news “disappointing and frustrating,” and that she “would’ve felt completely safe [in Israel]” from the coronavirus. Instead, she has returned to her hometown in New York– located next to the epicenter of the outbreak in the state.
“Going home was probably not the best option if they wanted to protect us,” said Drummond. She also lamented the loss of the opportunity to visit the Holy Land through a sponsored and affordable trip, an opportunity she does not think will happen again.
Several tour companies have adjusted their plans and trips due to COVID-19.
Peter’s Way Tours organizes pilgrimages to a variety of places, including Israel. Peter Bahou, president of Peter’s Way Tours, told CNA that they were “not directly affected” by Monday’s announcement.
“We had already rescheduled our March groups to travel later this year,” Bahou said. “We are closely monitoring the situation to see what changes may need to be made to our upcoming pilgrimages over the next few months.”
One pilgrim CNA spoke to ended up leaving Israel early over concerns they might become stranded in the country.
Fr. Thomas Petri, O.P., vice president and academic dean of the Dominican House of Studies, was five days into a weeklong personal pilgrimage before he decided to leave. He changed his flight, leaving on Wednesday, instead of on Friday.
Petri told CNA that hearing stories of pilgrims stranded in Tel Aviv due to canceled flights cemented his decision to get out before any new policy could be implemented.
“Israel is now requiring everyone who enters the country to go into a 14-day quarantine and they’re making sure people abide by it,” he said. “The prior of the Dominican Priory in Jerusalem had to sign a legal document verifying that they are following all quarantine laws.”
Petri said that while he was not sure if the quarantine directive was necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19, he could “understand the desire to slow the spread of this very contagious virus, even if we can’t guarantee a lot of people will still get it.”
“Israel is famously strict in its security and concern for its citizens, and we can understand why,” he added. According to Petri, most people he spoke with about the quarantine measures, including Israeli citizens, thought the decision was “extreme.”
Despite the abbreviated pilgrimage, which meant he did not get to see Gethsemane, the Mount of Olives, the Sea of Galilee, or Capernum, Petri called his trip “some of the most graced and fulfilling days of my life.”
“I have been renewed in my priesthood as the Lord has made clear His closeness and His love for me, and for all of us poor sinners,” he said to CNA. He thinks that “everyone” should make an effort to visit the Holy Land, and that doing so will lead to a deeper understanding of faith.
The adjusted itinerary means that Petri will have extra days in Paris, before his flight back home to the United States. He told CNA that he had not made any concrete plans about what he would do with his newfound time in the City of Lights.
“I’ll find something to do,” he said. “It’s Paris!”
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