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Coronavirus mutes Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem

By Yolande Knell

BBC News, Bethlehem


With its giant tree topped with a gleaming red star, Manger Square in Bethlehem is decked out for Christmas. But this season is not so jolly.

In 2019, the holiday brought tens of thousands of visitors to this little town in the occupied West Bank and there were record figures for tourism across the year.

Until the pandemic struck there had been hopes that 2020 would be even better.

“The occupancy rate was over 90%. Everyone was investing in this sector,” says Mariana al-Arja, general manager of the Angel Hotel.

“Businessmen started building new hotels. I built 22 new, luxurious rooms here. Now, it’s dead. It’s very sad to see.”

image captionThe Angel Hotel was forced to close after being the site of the West Bank’s first coronavirus outbreak

The Angel Hotel saw the West Bank’s first coronavirus outbreak back in March, after Greek tourists carrying the infection stayed there.

Ms Arja tested positive along with some of her staff. They had to spend 14 days in quarantine.

Two months later, with all bookings cancelled, she was forced to lay off her 25 employees and close the hotel.

She says this downturn is worse than previous ones caused by rounds of violence in the Israel-Palestinian conflict, but she believes business will eventually recover.

“This is where Jesus was born. I’m sure tourists are going to come back to Bethlehem but it needs time,” she says. “We’re waiting for the whole world to restart.”

image captionMariana al-Arja believes business will eventually recover

Meanwhile, it is not just hotels, but restaurants and souvenir shops that are shut.

Unemployment has shot up and the town’s economy – which, for centuries, has relied on Christian pilgrims – is in tatters.

And yet in the Holy Land, as elsewhere, some businesses have profited from online sales.

In an olive-wood workshop, I find there has been a sudden pre-Christmas rush.

The owner of the Christmas House shop, Jack Giacaman, is packing up orders of Nativity sets and Christmas ornaments.

“This was a horrible year. In the beginning, [there was] no work. Even during the summer most of us couldn’t find money to buy bread,” he says.

“At the last moment, thank God… all the people, before Christmas they remembered Bethlehem and they wanted to buy something. Today, I’m shipping all over – to New Zealand, Canada, England.”

image captionJack Giacaman said his olive-wood workshop had seen a rush of online orders

While the mayor of Bethlehem has insisted that traditional Christmas celebrations are not cancelled, they will look very different to normal.

Only the marching bands of local scout groups will be allowed for the processions that welcome the Latin Patriarch as he arrives from nearby Jerusalem on 24 December.

The Christmas Eve Mass, seen as the most important annual event at the Nativity church, will be closed to the public. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is 85, will not attend.

A strict lockdown remains in place across the occupied West Bank due to rising rates of Covid-19 limiting travel between cities.

People must remain indoors from 19:00 to 06:00 every night, and throughout the entire day on Fridays and Saturdays, the Palestinian weekend, which limits festive family gatherings.

media captionBBC Middle East correspondent Yolande Knell joins rehearsals for the festive processions that are still going ahead in Bethlehem

With the prospect of a quiet Christmas, local priests have been urging Christians here to seek comfort in their religion.

“It’s a sad Christmas, but we know that when Jesus was born the angels said: ‘Do not be afraid,'” says Father Issa Thaljieh, a Greek Orthodox priest at the Nativity church.

“We know that Jesus Christ was born for us, to give us salvation, and this is how to be happy – to have this inner peace and inner joy.”

image copyrightEPA

image captionWith its giant tree, Manger Square in Bethlehem is decked out for Christmas

In her small home overlooking Manger Square, Gloria Nasser serves me Christmas cookies made with ginger, cinnamon and Palestinian dates.

She has lived here all her life and usually dozens of her friends and relatives would pack her balconies to watch the Christmas parades pass by.

This year, that is not allowed.

Nevertheless, Ms Nasser feels that local Christians have a duty to remind the world of the Christmas message.

“When you say Bethlehem, all our minds go to Jesus and the grotto where he was born,” she says. “We know all over the world, so many families are suffering with this virus. So this year, we have to have hope and pray for it to finish.”

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