Bethlehem resumes Christmas celebrations amid COVID curbs

Christmas celebrations have resumed this year in the biblical town of Bethlehem, albeit dampened by restrictions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

Bethlehem returned to its traditional marching band parades and street celebrations, with scout bands banging drums and holding flags in Manger Square.

A midnight Mass celebrated by Latin Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the top Roman Catholic clergyman in the Holy Land, was also scheduled at the Church of the Nativity, which houses the grotto where Jesus was born.

As he left Jerusalem for Bethlehem on Friday, Pizzaballa said he hoped the pandemic would subside.

“We need pilgrims to bring us the life in our communities,” he said. “We need to find this balance and we are all working for this because it’s very sad to see the Old City [of Jerusalem] almost empty.”

Bethlehem’s mayor, Anton Salman, said he was optimistic that 2021 celebrations would be better than last year’s Christmas, when even local residents stayed home due to lockdown restrictions.

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

A ban on nearly all incoming air traffic by Israel, however, has kept international tourists away for a second consecutive year. The ban is meant to slow the spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant, which has shaken Christmas celebrations around the world.

Israel lifted a year and a half ban that had kept most foreign tourists out in November, but it was forced to reimpose it after only a few weeks as the Omicron variant began to spread worldwide.

Tourism is one of the main lifelines for Bethlehem’s economy, and the lack of visitors has hit residents especially hard.

“We have lost trust in the tourism industry, nobody has enough trust to stay,” Salameh said, adding that many acquaintances in the tourism industry had quit in favour of other sectors including agriculture.

Salameh said he “was lucky” to get a tour at the beginning of November, in the brief time frame when Israel allowed tourism to resume. “We just started breathing a little bit again, and then everything was gone.”

He added that, while the crowd gathered in the main square was perhaps one-tenth of what it used to be, the Christmas celebration this year looked livelier than in 2020, when shops and venues had remained shut.

“This gives me a little bit of hope that things will get better,” Salameh said.

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