Pablo Duer and Joan Mas Autonell
Jerusalem, Dec 23 (efe-epa).- On Thursday, the Holy Land will mark what will surely be the most subdued Christmas ever, with borders closed to foreigners and the painful absence of Christian pilgrims who usually celebrate the birth of Jesus in Jerusalem and Bethlehem at this time of year.
The coronavirus and related restrictions will make for an unprecedented Christmas celebration: the surroundings of the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem – where according to tradition Jesus Christ was born – are almost completely empty.
Although the traditional decorations are still there, such as the radiant Christmas tree, the atmosphere is ghostly silent compared to the joyful atmosphere and crowded streets of years gone by.
In the West Bank city, under strict lockdown since Sunday to stop the rapid spread of the virus, a landscape full of low blinds stands out: stores selling souvenirs, Christmas products or religious iconography are closed due to the lack of visitors.
The pandemic relegated the most sacred sites in all of Christianity to the small local mostly Orthodox Christian community, which celebrates Christmas in January.
The most glaring absence is that of tourists and pilgrims from all over the world, who would normally be filling temples, participating in traditional religious events and walking the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem, Nazareth or the old town of Bethlehem with fervor and curiosity.
Israel – which also controls all of the Palestinian territories’ borders — has been banning tourists since March to stop the spread of the virus, making travel for pilgrims impossible, and has closed its access even more this week for fear of the variant of the virus detected in Britain.
The situation “is very sad”, Bernard Sabella, a Palestinian Catholic from Jerusalem, sociologist and expert in local Christianity, tells Efe.
What makes Christmas in the Holy Land special, he says, “is the people who come from all over the world,” something he hopes will happen again next year.