Christmas returns to Bethlehem after two years of COVID curbs | Occupied West Bank News

With a giant evergreen tree, colorful balloons in the streets and selfies in the Church of the Nativity, Christmas tourism has returned to occupied West Bank city Bethlehem after two years. restrictions related to COVID.

Revered in the Christian tradition as the birthplace of Christ, the town of Bethlehem welcome thousands of pilgrims and tourists every year at Christmas, a boon that has been depleted in the past two years due to the pandemic and travel restrictions.

Now, with restrictions lifted in the occupied Palestinian territories and Israel, home to the closest international airport to the entrance to Bethlehem, the southern West Bank town has taken on a festive air.

Scouts marched with bagpipes while thousands of onlookers lined the streets holding balloons and cotton candy.

The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, greeted worshipers as he arrived in town, before leading the annual Christmas Eve procession at the Church of the Nativity.

People gather at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank [Mussa Issa Qawasma/Reuters]

Bethlehem Mayor Hanna Hanania told AFP news agency: “Christmas is the celebration of the town, and we spent a lot of time and effort preparing it.

“We wanted to have international involvement, and also organize children’s concerts and songs with singers from France, South Africa and Malta,” he added.

Al Jazeera reporter Nida Ibrahim, reporting from Bethlehem, says Palestinians are looking forward to a Christmas season free of any COVID-19 restrictions.

However, it was also a year “full of losses”, Ibrahim added.

“There has been a lot of tension here in the occupied West Bank – more than 230 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces,” she said, referring to those killed in the West Bank and in the besieged Gaza Strip.

“The fact that Palestinians feel that they have no hope of a better life – ending the Israeli occupation… affects the celebrations,” said Ibrahim.

‘Very difficult challenges’

Meanwhile, tourists flock to the streets, shops and stone buildings of this Palestinian town, where Christians and Muslims live side by side.

“It’s great to be here,” said Paul Wittenberger, a 40-year-old American from Michigan, visiting with his father and siblings.

“We have been here for three days and the weather has been beautiful, we are lucky to be here out of the storm.” sweep America this weekend, he said.

Michael al-Siriani, who owns a ceramics workshop, is happy to see tourists flocking back to the town after two difficult years, which saw local hotels empty.

He said: “Things are much better now after the coronavirus pandemic. “Besides, tourists have started sleeping in the city.”

While the numbers have not yet reached pre-pandemic levels, the return of tourists has markedly lifted morale in Bethlehem.

The Palestinian Authority, which administers the Israeli-occupied West Bank, confirmed Siriani’s feelings.

Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, attends Christmas celebrations, in Bethlehem, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank [Mohamad Torokman/Reuters]

Palestinian Tourism Minister Rula Maayah said: “Since the beginning of this year, more specifically from March, we have started welcoming pilgrims and tourists from all over the world.

“So far, we have welcomed about 700,000 tourists from all over the world,” she said.

Latin Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the leading Roman Catholic rabbi in the Holy Land, has arrived from Jerusalem and is expected to celebrate Mass at midnight.

“We are living in very difficult challenges,” he said. “But the message of Christmas is the message of peace.”

“Can change everything,” he added. “We will be very clear about what we must do and what we must say to maintain the importance of solidarity and reconciliation among all.”

Pizzaballa walked through Manger Square, waving to well-wishers before arriving at the Church of the Nativity, built on the site where Christians believe Jesus was born.

Reality today can be seen in Manger Square when banners featuring the image of Palestinian political prisoner Nasser Abu Hmaid are prominently displayed. maid died of cancer last week held in Israeli custody after serving some 20 years in prison, despite longstanding calls for his release and allegations of Israeli medical malpractice following his late diagnosis more than a year ago .

Meanwhile, pilgrims were praying deeply in the Church of the Nativity while others posed for selfies wearing red and white Santa hats, hours before the traditional midnight mass and prayers. pray for peace.

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