Festive cheer promise for Bethlehem

Posted On December 11, 2006

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BETHLEHEM, West Bank > Militants may be in charge, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be Christmas this year: the cash-strapped Hamas government is promising $50,000 to dress up Jesus’ traditional birthplace for the holiday, more than twice the amount spent in previous years.

Yet even the extra cash, if Hamas pays up, may not be enough for Bethlehem, hit hard by the last six years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting. The biblical town is now walled in by Israel’s West Bank separation barrier, poverty is deepening and Christians are leaving Bethlehem in droves.

Palestinian Tourism Minister Joudeh Morkos has modest expectations. Last year, only about 2,500 foreign visitors came on Christmas, but he’s counting on the usual busloads of Christians from Arab towns in Israel to boost turnout. Before the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising in 2000, Bethlehem drew more than 90,000 pilgrims a month.

With just two weeks for Christmas, Bethlehem is only sparsely decorated. Bethlehem Mayor Victor Batarseh, a churchgoing Catholic from a leftist party, said he won’t start decorating until he has the money in hand.

A few neon stars are nailed to storefronts on the main streets. In Manger Square, next to the Church of the Nativity, built over Jesus’ traditional birthplace, only two of six souvenir shops and a small cafe were open. Many other nearby shops were closed as well. A few tourists who sat outside a cafe, braving the dreary weather, were thronged by peddlers trying to sell olive wood crucifixes. Local businesses are suffering.

The economic squeeze has driven away growing numbers of Christians, already a minority of 35 per cent in this town of 30,000. Hamas’ generous promise of funding has drawn mixed reactions among local Christians.