Promises to dress up Bethlehem for Christmas

Posted On December 11, 2006

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The Islamic group Hamas 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 (euros 38,000) to dress up Jesus’ traditional birthplace for the holiday, more than twice the amount spent in previous years.

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

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.

A few neon stars are nailed to storefronts on the main streets. The only decoration on the Lutheran Christmas Church in a busy market area is spray-painted graffiti below the pointed steeple that reads “Islamic Jihad”.

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 on a recent afternoon. 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. Abir Karram, who sells traditional hand-embroidered Palestinian dresses, can no longer afford to pay the 700 shekel (US$115) monthly rent for her workshop. Two years ago, she had 30 women working part time for her, designing and embroidering gowns using ancient patterns. Now she has no workers.

Karram and other merchants say six years of economic hardship during the violence, including Israeli travel bans, have been compounded by an international economic boycott of the government, imposed 10 months ago when Hamas came to power. The group has struggled to pay salaries to 165,000 public servants, who are the backbone of the economy.

“The wall stopped tourists and Arabs from Israel,” she said, referring to the separation barrier, which is meant to stop Palestinian suicide bombings, but also cuts across Bethlehem’s main trade artery. Now people here have no salaries. Its like a well that finished drawing water,” Karram said.

The economic squeeze has driven away growing numbers of Christians, already a minority of 35 percent in this town of 30,000.

Bethlehem resident Mike Salman, an amateur chronicler of Christian affairs, said about 20 percent of the town’s 1,000 Catholic families have left in the past six years. Salman said he’s seen a similar rate of emigration from other Christian denominations. A 2004 UN report estimated about 10 percent of Christians had left.