Restored Church of the Nativity brings hope to Christians in Bethlehem

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Tourism to the birthplace of Christ is the key to the revitalization of Bethlehem.

The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is one of the holiest sites in Christianity, built on the spot where the Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus. Since Emperor Constantine and his mother Helena commissioned the church in 327, pilgrims have traveled to Bethlehem to touch the location of the Nativity Cave, marking the location of the cave where tradition tells us that Jesus was born.

Over the centuries, the great church fell into disrepair (it hadn’t undergone any major renovations since 1480), and in 2012, UNESCO inscribed it on the list of World Heritage in Danger. Soon after, the Bethlehem Development Foundation (BDF) was founded by the late Saïd Tawfik Khoury to restore the church.

Over the past 8 years, BDF and its sister organization, the non-profit association American Friends of Bethlehem Foundation (AFBF), raised and spent over $ 30 million to restore the 1,700-year-old church.

“The Church of the Nativity is a treasure house of history and faith,” said General Manager and CEO Mazen Karam, “We have made great strides and look forward to completing the work to return this treasure to the world. ”

In 2019, the restored church again became a popular tourist spot and experienced what Karam called a “year of generosity,” with visits from 2.5 million tourists. Then the pandemic struck in 2020, halting progress in the effort to revitalize Bethlehem.

“Tourists were lining up from the church. The queue went all the way to the street, to Manger Square, but suddenly we were hit by the pandemic which stopped everything, ”Karam told Aleteia.

The fate of Christians in Palestine

Even before the pandemic, Christians in Palestine had become an endangered species. In 1922, at the end of the Ottoman era, there were approximately 70,000 Christians who represented 11% of the population. Today, only 47,500 Christians live in all of Palestine. This is only 1.7% of the population. In Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, only 1 in 5 (22%) inhabitants are Christian today, which is a sharp drop from just ten years ago, when 4 in 5 (84%) were Christians.

According to a survey by the Philos Project, a US-based initiative promoting positive Christian engagement in the Middle East, 59% of Christians in Palestine said economic conditions were the main reason they would consider emigrating.

Hope for Bethlehem

Karam sees the work of the Bethlehem Development Foundation as essential to improving the economic situation of Christians in Bethlehem and preventing Christians from emigrating.

“The only hope is to revitalize Bethlehem, and that is one of the goals of this initiative,” he said.

In addition to restoring the Church of the Nativity, the BDF has funded projects to help bring tourists to Bethlehem.

“The objective of this initiative that we launched in 2011 was to regenerate Bethlehem and develop it so that it again becomes an important tourist destination, as it was in the first centuries. In fact, it was the first tourist destination, the Magi came from Persia to see Jesus, the first tourists of all time, and now we have to keep it for a different population all together.

With the help of donations from foreign countries, including Germany, France, the United States and some Arab countries, the BDF began to make improvements in the infrastructure of Bethlehem. A new waste management plan for the city, a municipal solar power plan and a new road system are now underway.

“The streets are narrow – some of the streets date back to the time of Jesus, the width of the street is the width of two donkeys crossing each other,” Karam explained.

Along with investment in infrastructure, the tourism industry has rapidly improved. According to Karam, over the past ten years, Bethlehem has doubled the number of available hotel rooms. In 2019, he said, the city added five new hotels.

“There are now 51 hotels in the Bethlehem area and 15 religious guesthouses, with almost 4,500 rooms in Bethlehem. This is a big change from when our initiative started in 2011, ”said Karam.

Challenges remain

Even with increased tourism capacity, Bethlehem faces considerable obstacles due to the political situation that exists in Palestine.

A recent directive, for example, from the Israeli Ministry of Tourism banned night visits to Bethlehem, apparently due to Israel’s coronavirus policy. Tourist buses from Israel are only allowed to stop in Bethlehem a few hours before returning to Israel.

Tourists should consider coming to Bethlehem from Jordan, Karam says.

“Be there [in Bethlehem] and spending the night is an experience in itself. There are hundreds of churches in Bethlehem. Wherever you go, every stone has a meaning in Bethlehem, ”he said.

“The best is to stay a few days in Jerusalem, a few days in Bethlehem and a few days in the north,” Karam said.

The souvenir trade

Many Christians who remained in Bethlehem made and sold olive wood, ceramic, and mother-of-pearl items for a living.

For Americans who would like to support them, Karma suggests purchasing these artifacts from stalls set up in malls across the United States, or via the Bible museum who has just signed an agreement with the BDF to make these handicrafts.

To support the work of the Bethlehem Revitalization Initiative, donations can be made to AFBDF and the BDF.

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