Christmas in Bethlehem: Gilded Treasures, But Few Tourists

Before Christmas, a giant wooden screen – once blackened with soot from the candles of millions of worshipers – is being restored to its gold luster at the Church of the Nativity, where many believe Jesus was born. Was.

But few visitors expect to see it during the coming Christmas holiday season.

Bible Bethlehem has been struggling since the start of the coronavirus pandemic nearly two years ago. Christmas is usually the peak season for tourism to the traditional birthplace of Jesus, located in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. In the time before the pandemic, thousands of pilgrims and tourists from around the world celebrated at the Church of the Nativity and adjacent Manger Square.

Israel reopened its borders to vaccinated tourists earlier this month, but relatively few people are expected to travel to Bethlehem this holiday season, and not nearly as many as pre-pandemic records Were in the -breaking year. Most tourists visiting Bethlehem fly into Israel because the West Bank does not have an airport.

Many hotels in Bethlehem have closed and shoppers have struggled to keep up with their lives. Aladdin Subuh, a shopkeeper whose store is right across from Manger Square, said he only opens his doors to let the shop air.

Palestinian workers prepare a Christmas tree in Manager Square, adjacent to the Church of the Nativity, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. (AP Photo/Nasir Nasser)

“It is almost Christmas and there is no one. Imagine that,” he said, surveying some passersby in hopes of finding a foreigner looking for a souvenir. “For two years, no business. It’s like dying slowly.”

While the pandemic has hit the Holy Land’s once thriving tourism industry for Israel and Palestinians alike in tourism-dependent Bethlehem, the impact has been particularly severe. Israel, the primary gateway for foreign tourists, had banned most foreign visitors for the past year and a half before reopening this month.

According to Israel’s Ministry of the Interior, more than 30,000 tourists entered Israel in the first half of November, compared to 421,000 in November 2019.

The Palestinian Self-Government Government, which administers autonomous enclaves in the West Bank, has provided only limited support in the form of tax exemptions and training programs to hoteliers, tour operators and tour guides, said Majid Ishaq, director of marketing at Palestinian Tourism. said. Ministry. He said the ministry is launching a campaign to encourage Israeli Palestinian citizens to visit Bethlehem and other West Bank cities during the holiday season. He said he expected the number of foreign tourists to be 10% to 20% of the pre-pandemic figures.

Others are not so optimistic.

Bethlehem, Bethlehem Christmas, Bethlehem Christmas Epidemic A section of a reconstructed mosaic adorns the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. (AP Photo/Nasir Nasser)

“I don’t think tourism will return very soon,” said Fadi Kattan, a Palestinian chef and hotelier in Bethlehem’s Old City. The pandemic forced him to close his senses Syrian guesthouse in March 2020, and for months he had to let go of his staff.

He said reopening before Christmas is neither economically nor practically feasible, especially in light of a new wave of coronavirus infections spreading across Europe. He said it would take years to heal the pandemic’s “mixed effect in two years” on Bethlehem’s economy – from hotels and restaurants to farmers, grocers and dry cleaners who depended on their businesses,

“To reopen in safety we have to see that there is a long-term possibility,” he said.

On a recent day at the Church of the Nativity, the crown jewel of Bethlehem, a solitary group of Italian tourists entered the 6th-century basilica, a line that would have swung out the door in the years before COVID-19. In Manger Square, municipal workers started lighting Christmas lights behind them.

Since 2013 the church has undergone a multi-million dollar facelift that was organized by a Palestinian presidential committee. It has restored the gold-tiled mosaics and marble floors to their former glory and has undergone major structural repairs to one of the oldest churches in Christendom, a UNESCO heritage site.

Bethlehem, Bethlehem Christmas, Bethlehem Christmas Epidemic Tourists pose for a photo with columns of reconstructed polished limestone, during a visit to the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. (AP Photo/Nasir Nasser)

Additional work remains to be done, said Mazen Karam, director of the Bethlehem Development Foundation, the group is leading some of the restorations at the church. The undertaking has already cost $17 million, but Karam said an additional $2 million is needed to refurbish the church’s flagstone and install firefighting and micro-climate systems.

A separate project by the Greek Orthodox Church to revive the iconostasis once surrounded by soot – the wooden screen separating the sanctuary from the nave of the building in the late 18th century – was delayed by the outbreak of the coronavirus, but now three years The latter is due to be completed before Christmas. Of painstaking work.

“It’s a big challenge,” said Saki Pappadopoulos, a woodcarver with Artis, a Greek restoration company leading the project.

But Father Issa Thaljih, the Greek Orthodox priest of the Church of the Nativity, remains optimistic ahead of the holiday season.

“Thank God, day by day we may see more groups coming to Bethlehem – not staying in Bethlehem, just for a visit – but it is a good sign,” he said, adding that the church’s recently refurbished Standing on a marble beam, or raised platform. “Bethlehem without tourists, without people visiting Bethlehem, is nothing.”

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