Almost 7,000 people out of work in Bethlehem’s tourism sector

A Palestinian woman walks past a row of closed shops near the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, West Bank, in May 2020. (CNS photo/Debbie Hill)

JERUSALEM—It will be a quiet and subdued Christmas this year in Bethlehem, with almost 7,000 people involved in the tourism sector out of work because of the COVID-19 pandemic, said Bethlehem Mayor Anton Salman.

Virtually no pilgrims or tourists have visited Bethlehem since the outbreak began in March, when the first cases of COVID-19 in the West Bank were diagnosed in a group of Greek pilgrims.

In a video news conference Dec. 2, Salman told reporters that some 800 Bethlehem families have been left without any income as 67 hotels, 230 souvenir shops, 127 restaurants and 250 handicrafts workshops have been forced to close in a city that is economically dependent on tourism.

Salman said although there is a responsibility to keep Christmas alive in Bethlehem, given the current situation, the holiday festivities will not be normal. The religious celebrations will follow the Status Quo traditions, but some protocols will need to be adapted to the COVID-19 reality, he said. Meetings to finalize the procedures will be held between the churches and the municipality by Dec. 14, he said.

Preparation of the city’s Christmas tree in Manger Square has already begun, but the square normally bustling with visitors at this time of year was almost empty in early December, with only a few local visitors stopping to take selfies with the tree.

There was no need this year to assemble the large festive stage next to the tree: There will be no musical performances from local and international choirs during the holiday season.

A nightly curfew imposed in Palestinian cities following a spike in COVID-19 cases is keeping people indoors between 7 p.m. until 6 a.m., and only a shortened version of the tree-lighting ceremony — usually a joyful kickoff to the holiday season — will take place Dec. 5, Salman said.

“Only 12 people will be there, with a very limited time. They will go up to the square and the priests will bless the tree,” he said.

Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, newly appointed Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, told Catholic News Service the patriarchate is engaged in discussions with both Palestinian and Israeli authorities to determine how the traditional Christmas religious celebrations will be held. But with the situation changing daily and the Israelis and Palestinians each with their own differing requirements, nothing has been finalized yet, he added.

“We will do everything as usual but, of course, with less people,” said Archbishop Pizzaballa. “Things are changing every day, so it is difficult to say now what will be on the 25th of December.”

He said he would like parishioners to be able to attend Christmas Mass along with representatives of local communities following necessary COVID-19 regulations.

By Judith Sudilovsky