Bethlehem braces for yet another Christmas without pilgrims

By Joan Mas Autonell

Bethlehem, West Bank, Dec 9 (EFE).- Pessimism reigns in Bethlehem as it prepares for another Christmas without pilgrims following Israel’s decision to close off borders in a fresh blow to the tourism-dependent West Bank city.

When Israel, which occupies and controls access to the West Bank, reopened its borders to tourism in November for the first time since March 2020, Bethlehem’s residents breathed a sigh of relief and began to gradually revive the damaged industry.

The first groups of Christian pilgrims arrived to the city, bringing with them a light uptick in the local economy, but the optimism was short-lived.

At the end of the month, Israel closed its borders again following reports that scientists had detected the new Omicron variant of coronavirus. In just a few days, Bethlehem was bereft of tourists once more.

“It was like going back to square one,” Hader Abu Jeries, who works at his family’s restaurant in Manger Square, near the Church of the Nativity, home to the grotto where some Christians believe Jesus Christ was born, told Efe.

The church, a Unesco World Heritage site, is one of the focal points for pilgrims to the Holy Land.

It reopened in all its splendor in early 2020 following a six-year renovation but few visitors have had the chance to see it due to coronavirus.

Before the pandemic, Bethlehem would see a surge in pilgrims during the Christmas and Easter periods. Large groups of visitors would wind down the streets of the city’s old quarter and fill the shops to buy souvenirs and religious objects.

Many of Bethlehem’s stores are now shuttered due to the lack of tourists.

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