By ILAN BEN ZION
The Associated Press
BETHLEEM, West Bank – Before Christmas, an imposing wooden screen – once blackened with soot from millions of worshipers’ candles – is being restored to its golden glory in the Church of the Nativity, built on the site where many believe that Jesus was born.
But few visitors are expected to see it during the upcoming Christmas holiday season.
Biblical Bethlehem has struggled since the coronavirus pandemic began almost two years ago. Christmas is normally the peak season for tourism in the traditional birthplace of Jesus, located in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. In the pre-pandemic times, thousands of pilgrims and tourists from all over the world celebrated in the Church of the Nativity and in the adjacent Nativity scene.
Israel reopened its borders to vaccinated tourists earlier this month, but relatively few people are expected to visit Bethlehem this holiday season and not as many as the record year before the pandemic. Most tourists visiting Bethlehem arrive in Israel, as the West Bank does not have an airport.
Many hotels in Bethlehem have closed, and traders have struggled to keep afloat. Aladdin Subuh, a shopkeeper whose store is right next to Manger Square, said he only opened to air the store.
“It’s almost Christmas, and there’s no one around. Imagine that,” he said, probing the few passers-by in the hopes of spotting a stranger looking for a souvenir. “For two years, no business. It’s like dying slowly.”
Although the pandemic has devastated the Holy Land’s once thriving tourism industry for Israelis and Palestinians, for tourism-dependent Bethlehem, the impact has been particularly severe. Israel, the main gateway for foreign tourists, had banned most foreign visitors for a year and a half before reopening this month.
Just over 30,000 tourists entered Israel in the first half of November, up from 421,000 in November 2019, according to Israel’s Interior Ministry.
The autonomous Palestinian government, which administers self-governing enclaves in the West Bank, has provided limited support, in the form of tax exemptions and training programs, to hoteliers, tour operators and tour guides, said Majed Ishaq, director. marketing to the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism. He said the ministry was launching a campaign to encourage Palestinian citizens of Israel to visit Bethlehem and other West Bank cities during the holiday season. He added that he hoped the number of foreign tourists would be 10-20% of the pre-pandemic figures.
Others are not so optimistic.
âI don’t think tourism will come back very soon,â said Fadi Kattan, a Palestinian chef and hotelier in Bethlehem’s old city. The pandemic forced him to close his Syrian guesthouse Hosh in March 2020, and over the months he had to lay off his staff.
He said it was neither financially nor practically feasible to reopen before Christmas, especially in light of a new wave of coronavirus infections sweeping through Europe. He said it would take years to recover from the “two-year worsened impact of the pandemic” on Bethlehem’s economy – from hotels and restaurants to the farmers, grocers and dry cleaners who depended on their businesses.
“To reopen safely, we have to see that there is a long term perspective,” he said.
On a recent day at the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem’s crown jewel, a lonely group of Italian tourists entered the 6th-century basilica which, years before COVID-19, was said to have a queue until at the door. City workers were starting to hang Christmas lights behind them in Manger Square.
The church has undergone a multi-million dollar facelift since 2013 which was organized by a Palestinian presidential committee. He restored the gold-tile mosaics and marble floors to their former glory and carried out major structural repairs to the UNESCO heritage site, one of the oldest churches in Christendom.
More work remains to be done, said Mazen Karam, director of the Bethlehem Development Foundation, the group leading some of the church’s restorations. The venture has already cost $ 17 million, but Karam said an additional $ 2 million is needed to renovate the church slabs and install firefighting and microclimate systems.
A separate project by the Greek Orthodox Church to renovate the once soot-encrusted iconostasis – a late 18th-century wooden screen separating the sanctuary from the nave of the building – has been delayed by the coronavirus outbreak but is now almost finished before Christmas, after three years of painstaking work.
âIt’s a big challenge,â said Saki Pappadopoulos, woodcarver at Artis, a Greek restoration company that is leading the project.
But Father Issa Thaljieh, a Greek Orthodox priest of the Church of the Nativity, remains optimistic before the end of the year holidays.
“Thank goodness a little bit by the day we can see more groups coming to Bethlehem – not staying in Bethlehem, maybe only for a visit – but that’s a good sign,” he said. said, standing on the church’s recently rehabilitated marble bema, or raised platform. “Bethlehem without tourists, without anyone coming to Bethlehem, it’s nothing.”