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Turmoil in Holy Land overshadows Christmas celebrations

This year’s Christmas celebrations will only a see fraction of the throngs of visitors that have normally flocked to Bethlehem
Palestinian security forces stand guard on the roof of the Church of the Nativity as Christians gather for Christmas celebrations in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, on 24 December 2015 (AFP)

BETHLEHEM, Occupied West Bank - The large Christmas tree placed on Bethlehem’s Manger Square was lit on 6 December, but this year’s festivities are likely to be reduced as a result of the ongoing unrest across the Holy Land.

“We cannot forget what is going on, that there are people suffering,” Father Jamal Khader, the rector of Bethleham's Latin Patriarchate told Maan news agency. “People are losing hope in a future of peace.”

Traditionally an integral tourist event, experts say this year’s Christmas celebrations will only a see fraction of the throngs of visitors that have normally flocked to Bethlehem.

These quieter celebrations also highlight a reduced Palestinian Christian population, whose numbers have dwindled with many choosing to leave Israel’s military occupation.

Khader said the Latin Patriarch’s annual procession from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on Christmas eve had gone ahead this year, as it had done during even through the Second Intifada.

But celebrations outside the Nativity Church on Manger Square - traditionally the birthplace of Jesus Christ - are expected to be far more restrained than they have in recent years.

“We are celebrating today with a very critical situation in Palestine,” said Mayor Vera Baboun, although she added that celebrating Christmas was Bethlehem’s duty - “as the city of peace”.

‘Nothing without tourism’

Bethlehem’s economy is heavily reliant on tourism, and every year, the district draws in nearly half the West Bank’s tourists, the vast majority of them Christian pilgrims.

But even before the unrest spread at the beginning of October, tourism had seen a sharp fall across the occupied Palestinian territories, mostly due to the Gaza war in 2014, but also turmoil in the region at large.

Bethlehem’s Chamber of Commerce said that tourism across the West Bank in the first half of 2015 was down by almost a third compared with the six months of 2014.

“The coming Christmas is not expected to boost the economy of Bethlehem as many tourists have cancelled their hotel reservations,” it said, adding that the occupancy rate in Bethlehem’s hotels could sink to as low as 40 percent over Christmas.

“Many people want to come, but they are afraid because they know the Holy Land is under occupation,” said Palestinian Minister of Tourism Rula Maaya.

Majdi Ata Amro, who owns the Bedouin Store in Bethlehem's north, said that business was very poor, down as much as 80 percent for some locals in the tourist trade. “You don’t feel there’s Christmas,” he said.

Clashes have erupted frequently on the street outside his tourist shop, which is close to Israel’s separation wall. “Inshallah, there will be change,” he said. “Bethlehem without tourism is nothing.”

Christian emigration

A subdued Christmas adds to an already difficult year for Palestinian Christians, who have suffered the full brunt of Israel’s policies, most notably land seizures and, for those in Jerusalem, the revocation of residency rights.

Several ultra-orthodox Jewish groups have threatened to attack Palestinian churches, and in June, have set fire to the the wing of a revered church in Galilee where Jesus is said to have performed the miracle of the loaves and the fishes.

“Nearly everyone has emigrated,” said Raffoul Rofa, the executive director of the Society of St. Yves, the Latin Patriarchate’s legal arm. Over the last century, Christians had gone from comprising 20 percent of the Palestinian population to just over 1 percent, he said.

While Palestine’s Christians have faced the same crippling effects of Israel’s occupation as Muslims, Rofa said their emigration has been accelerated in part due to their more vulnerable status as a minority, as well as having large numbers of relatives abroad.

In a widely reported case earlier this year, Israel decided to go ahead with controversial plans to build the separation wall directly through land belonging to the Christian-majority village of Beit Jala to the west of Bethlehem.

If completed, the separation wall would cut off Christian landowners from olive groves their families have cultivated for centuries, probably to be incorporated into the nearby Jewish-only settlements of Gilo and Har Gilo.

“At least 58 families here in Beit Jala won’t have land to pass onto the next generation,” said Rofa, noting that the plans would probably push many of these families to pack up and leave.

‘Active community’

Some 60,000 Christians now live in the occupied Palestinian territory, the PLO estimates; while the population of Muslims has grown rapidly in recent decades, that of Christians has remained almost unchanged.

“I don’t really care how many Christians are living here,” Fr. Khader said. “What matters is what they are doing, what kind of presence they have.” He said an “active community,” standing together with the rest of Palestinian society, was what mattered most.

He hoped the Christmas celebrations this year would bring a message “of hope for all inhabitants of the Holy Land” and allow the church to “share joy with those who are suffering.”

The latest round of violence has so far left more than 110 Palestinians and nearly 20 Israelis dead, and there is no end in sight to the bloodshed.

The Latin Patriarch’s procession will pass through Israel’s separation wall at a site that has been rocked by fierce clashes almost every day since the beginning of October - making its way down a road where Israeli forces have shot and wounded scores of Palestinian protesters.

Minister of Tourism Rula Maaya said she too hoped the year’s festivities would offer some relief at a time that has otherwise seemed bleak to many. “This is the land of peace,” she said, “Bethlehem is the birthplace of the king of peace, and all we want is peace.”

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