Coronavirus dampens Christmas cheer in biblical Bethlehem

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) – The biblical city of Bethlehem is gearing up for its second consecutive Christmas Eve hit by the coronavirus – with small crowds and gray, gloomy weather celebrations on Friday at Jesus’ traditional birthplace.

A ban on almost all air traffic entering through Israel – the main entry point for foreign visitors heading to the occupied West Bank – has kept international tourists out for the second year in a row. The ban aims to slow the spread of the highly contagious variant of omicron, which has rocked Christmas celebrations around the world.

Instead, local authorities relied on the small Christian community in the Holy Land to boost morale.

Bethlehem Mayor Anton Salman said the city was optimistic 2021 would be better than Christmas last year, when even local residents stayed at home due to lockdown restrictions. Bethlehem has planned the return of its traditional brass band parades and street celebrations.

“Last year our festival was virtual, but this year it will be face to face with popular participation,” said Salman.

Police erected barricades early Friday as groups of Boy Scouts marched through Manger Square, beating drums and waving flags before the expected arrival from Jerusalem of Latin Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the highest Catholic clergyman in the Holy Land.

Pizzaballa was to celebrate midnight mass at the nearby Church of the Nativity, which houses the cave where Christians believe Jesus was born.

At around noon, several hundred people, almost all Palestinians, gathered behind the barricades to celebrate the occasion.

Before the pandemic, Bethlehem hosted thousands of Christian pilgrims from all over the world, bringing a heavy dose of holiday spirit to the city and a huge shock to the local economy. The loss of international tourism, the cornerstone of Bethlehem’s economy, has hit hotels, restaurants and gift shops particularly hard.

“Under normal conditions for this time of year, I usually have a 20-meter queue outside,” said Adil Abu Nayaf, owner of an empty food stand in Manger Square.

Those in attendance tried to make the most of a difficult situation. The Holy Land is home to more than 200,000 Christians, a small but tight-knit community that represents approximately 1–2% of the population in Israel and the occupied West Bank. There are also thousands of foreign workers and African migrants, as well as diplomats and journalists.

Billy Stuart, an employee of the British Consulate in Jerusalem, said his experience in Bethlehem was uplifting, despite the crowd being smaller than expected.

“The parade is amazing and I didn’t realize there were so many Palestinian pipers,” he said.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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