Bethlehem subdued for second pandemic Christmas

·4-min read

In Bethlehem's Manger Square, visitors in Santa hats and scouts beating drums marked Christmas Eve on Friday, but numbers were lower than usual as coronavirus fears overshadowed celebrations for a second straight year.

The city where Christians believe Jesus was born is usually a focal point of the holiday, with thousands packing the streets and filling hotels.

But Israel, which controls all entrances to Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank, barred its borders to foreigners in an effort to rein in infections from the Omicron strain of the coronavirus.

"It's very strange," said Kristel Elayyan, a Dutchwoman married to a Palestinian, who came to Bethlehem from Jerusalem.

"Before (the pandemic), you had a bunch of people coming in from different countries to celebrate Christmas, and now you know that everybody who is here is probably not a tourist."

Last year, Bethlehem curtailed celebrations sharply because of the pandemic, with a virtual tree lighting and just a handful of visiting scouts.

This year, the celebrations were more vibrant -- but still a fraction of their usual size.

"If it's one year, it's an interesting experience," Elayyan said of the pandemic. "But because this is the second year and we don't know what is going to come in the future, it's a huge loss for the people here."

- Local visitors -

An upbeat Palestinian tourism minister, Rula Maayah, said it was "thanks to the vaccines" that Bethlehem was celebrating again.

In his homily for midnight mass celebrated in St Catherine's Church in Bethlehem, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Pierbattista Pizzaballa said it was encouraging that celebrations were "certainly more joyful this year".

"Compared to last year's Christmas, the participation is much greater and this is an encouraging sign," he told the masked congregation, but regretted the absence of foreign worshippers due to the pandemic.

"We pray for them and at the same time ask for their prayers, so that all this may end soon and that the city of Bethlehem may once again be full of pilgrims."

On average, Bethlehem welcomed three million visitors a year before the pandemic, with Christmas alone drawing 10,000 people to the city's hotels, around half from abroad.

The municipality said it worked this year to appeal to local visitors from Palestinian communities across the Holy Land.

Some hotels were busy, but about a quarter of available rooms citywide were shuttered because of the pandemic, said Elias Arja, head of the Palestinian Hotel Association.

Several businesses kept their doors shut on Friday, despite Christmas Eve being the most important day of the year for many in Bethlehem.

Inside the Church of the Nativity, visitors were even able to meditate nearly alone at the grotto where Jesus is said to have been born.

"Surreal," observed Hudson Harder, a 21-year-old American student at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

"Of course, there is a selfish part where it's like, 'Oh, I get to see this place so empty' but on the other hand you feel for the shops, all the money they are losing."

- 'Worse than war' -

Steps away from the basilica, images of Popes John Paul II and Francis covered the front of a shop selling carved olive wood figures and nativity scenes.

Owner Victor Epiphane Tabash said it was his 57th Christmas behind the counter. For him, as for many shopkeepers around Manger Square, "there is nothing to say about Christmas".

"Only the scouts give a bit of the holiday feeling," he said, as the uniformed groups marched past, blasting out Christmas carols on drums, trumpets and bagpipes.

Tabash said he kept his business alive during the pandemic by exporting because no customers came to buy in person. He compared the pandemic to two previous Palestinian uprisings, or intifadas.

"We have lived through the intifadas, wars. But the coronavirus is worse," he said.

Outside, Maram Saeed, a Palestinian woman from Jerusalem, took a selfie with her husband and two children in front of a towering Christmas tree decorated with shining red and gold spheres.

Saeed said it was a time of joy after many days of depression.

"It's not like a usual year, we have the fear of the worst, we still fear Covid," she told AFP.

"When there is war, we know the enemy, and we know who we are fighting. But with Covid, it's a very tiny enemy that we don't see, so it's worse."

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