Christmas will not be cancelled, says Bethlehem amid little comfort or joy

Just 12 months ago, the Palestinian town was celebrating its busiest festive season for two decades. PHOTO: REUTERS

BETHLEHEM, WEST BANK (REUTERS) - Bethlehem is shaping up for a dismal Christmas: Most of the inns are closed, the shepherds are likely to be under lockdown and there are few visitors from the east, or anywhere else.

Just 12 months ago, the Palestinian town was celebrating its busiest festive season for two decades, amid a sustained drop in violence and a corresponding surge in the number of pilgrims and tourists.

But hotels that were adding new wings in 2019 are now shuttered because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Nevertheless, town leaders say the traditional birthplace of Jesus will go ahead with its celebrations, aware that the world's eyes are upon it at this time of year.

"Bethlehem is going to celebrate Christmas. And Christmas will not be cancelled," said Mayor Anton Salman, as workers behind him erected a huge Christmas tree in Manger Square.

"This Christmas from Bethlehem there will be a message of hope to the whole world, that the world will recover from this pandemic."

Newly-appointed Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Pierbattista Pizzaballa on Monday (Nov 30) sought to rally the Holy Land faithful, saying that preparations had already started.

His fellow Franciscan friar, Father Francesco Patton, the Custodian of the Holy Land, launched the seasonal celebrations on Saturday, presiding over a service in a near-deserted Church of the Nativity.

"This Christmas will be less festive than usual as there will be restrictions, I suppose like any other part of the world," Archbishop Pizzaballa said in an interview with a Catholic news service.

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Just twelve months ago Bethlehem town was celebrating its busiest festive season for two decades, but now the Palestinian town is shaping up for a dismal Christmas.

"Maybe the civil law will forbid us to celebrate as we want; the pandemic will impose restrictions, but none will stop us from expressing the true meaning of Christmas which is to make an act of love."

Ms Rula Maayah, the Palestinian Authority's tourism minister, said this year was particularly challenging because it followed record tourism in 2018 and 2019, which then slumped to near-zero foreign tourism, and fewer Christian Palestinians coming as pilgrims.

A third factor, say tourist guides and souvenir shop owners, is that the pandemic's toll on the global economy has devastated sales over the Internet - which typically spike during the holiday season.

At noon in Manger Square in what would normally be a frenetic build-up to Christmas, the plaza was almost empty in November, with just a few people milling around. Shop after shop was closed and market stalls were selling just a few trinkets.

In Nativity Street, Mr Michael Canawati's souvenir store is a popular stop for tourist coaches that would typically buy key chains engraved with images of Jesus or intricately carved Nativity scenes made from Palestinian olive wood.

But Mr Canawati has not opened his shop in weeks, is struggling to pay employees' salaries and was forced to permanently close his second store in Jerusalem.

"We are at a dead end. The shop is full of merchandise," he told Reuters. "The whole world is in the same problem that we are in. We put some promotions (online) for Christmas... and still nothing," he said.

Mr Elias al-Arja, chairman of the Arab Hotel Association, said the town and the world faced the same problem.

"I have worked in tourism for 30 years. We have had ups and downs because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but never anything like this."

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