Foreigners are few in Bethlehem for Christmas

Posted On December 28, 2006

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BETHLEHEM > Hundreds of people packed the Church of the Nativity to celebrate Christmas at Jesus’ traditional birthplace, but few foreign tourists were among the worshippers, putting a damper on the holiday cheer.

Bells pealed, and decorative lights shone in Manger Square. But most of the visitors were Palestinian Christians or Israeli Arabs. Foreign visitors, who are critical to Bethlehem’s economy, were largely absent, apparently deterred by recent Palestinian infighting and years of conflict with Israel.

The tensions did little to dash the spirits of foreign pilgrims who made the journey to the Holy Land.  “The experience was incredible,” said Nick Parker, 24, of Goodland, Kansas, who was visiting Bethlehem for the first time. “I could feel the true Spirit of Christmas here in Bethlehem.” Father Larry Sullivan, 40, a Roman Catholic prelate from Chicago, said Christmas in Bethlehem was all the more special because of the sense of unity that emerged from the conflict.

“It was a very moving experience,” said Sullivan, who was also on his first visit to Bethlehem. “The Spirit of Christmas is filled with great enthusiasm and great happiness, people from all walks of life coming here to share this experience.” For local residents, the atmosphere was gloomier.  “Yesterday, people were afraid of the political situation,” said Jane Zakariyeh of Bethlehem, referring to Palestinian infighting that has caused the deaths of 17 Palestinians in recent weeks. Shop owners, who make most of their income during the Christmas season, complained this year was among the worst in memory.

The subdued Christmas adds to the woes of Bethlehem, which already is suffering from international sanctions imposed on the Hamas-led Palestinian government as well as Israel’s separation barrier. The massive barrier encloses Bethlehem and separates it from neighbouring Jerusalem.  “The economic situation is very much affecting the Christmas atmosphere here,” said Mary Bader, who came to celebrate from Jerusalem. The Palestinian Ministry of Tourism said 3,500 pilgrims arrived in Bethlehem this year, only a small fraction of the tens of thousands who would arrive before Israeli-Palestinian violence broke out in late 2000. The diminished number of visitors is a big blow to the city of 30,000.

Israel says it built the barrier to prevent Palestinian suicide bombers from reaching Israeli population centers.  Palestinians view the structure, which dips into parts of the West Bank, as a land grab. In his homily at midnight Mass in Bethlehem, Sabbah appealed to Palestinians to halt their recent “fratricidal struggles” and called for an end to Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed as well.  This Christmas is the first under a Palestinian Authority governed by the militant Islamic group Hamas.

To alleviate Christian fears ahead of the holiday, Hamas promised that it would send $50,000 to decorate Manger Square in the centre of town for the holiday. It was not clear if the money ever arrived. With every Christmas, the Holy Land’s Christian community shrinks a bit. The native Palestinian Christian population has dipped below 2 percent of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Arab East Jerusalem, down from at least 15 per cent in 1950, by some estimates. Bethlehem is now less than 20 per cent Christian.