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Bethlehem’s new Christian mayor is revitalizing the city

People pass by the "The Walled Off Hotel" and the Israeli security barrier in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Friday, March 3, 2017. The owner of a guest house packed with the elusive artist Banksy's work has opened the doors of his West Bank establishments to media, showcasing its unique "worst view in the world." The nine-room hotel named "The Walled Off Hotel" will officially open on March 11. (AP Photo/Dusan Vranic)

J-P Mauro - published on 01/10/18 - updated on 01/10/18

While Banksy's new hotel is a start, necessary infrastructure improvements are also pivotal

The city of Jerusalem is currently going through a period of population and economic growth. With over a million residents, the city boasts one of the lowest unemployment rates in the world, and offers higher wages than the surrounding areas. However, only four miles away the city of Bethlehem, populated by 12,000 Christians and 20,000 Muslims, is suffering through an unemployment crisis. Nearly 23 percent are without jobs — the highest unemployment rate in the West Bank.

The dire job market has many, Christians and Muslims alike, considering emigration as the city’s hard times have lead to the dilapidation of much of its infrastructure. Tourism has always been an important source of revenue for Bethlehem, but in recent years, tourism has lagged, and tourist spending has also diminished. Particularly since the construction of a controversial wall between Israel and the Palestinian border, many visitors to the Holy Land stay in Israeli hotels, only visiting the city of Christ’s birth for a few hours while on brief tours.

The newly-appointed (Christian) mayor of Bethlehem, Anton Salman, has vowed to solve Bethlehem’s problems and seeks to restore the ancient city to its deserved glory. He has already proposed changes that include improving infrastructure — including roads, tunnels and the water system. He has also demonstrated that he is not meek, calling out the Israeli government for occupying and appropriating all the land surrounding Bethlehem and preventing its growth.

While the people of Bethlehem await their mayor’s plans to take effect their hope for a resurgence of a Christian presence in Palestine, and that of tourism, rests in the restoration of the Church of the Nativity.

Catholic Herald has the details of this ancient church’s restoration:

After four years of restoration work costing more than $18 million, most of the scaffolding inside the church has now been dismantled. This, together with the removal of centuries of dust, has left Crusader-era mosaics sparkling in sunlight. For the first time for centuries the full splendour of the church can be seen. Ziad al-Bandak, the government official in charge of the restoration, reports that locals, pilgrims and tourists come to study parts of the mosaics. Many come to see the seventh angel. Previously, all that could be seen in the upper level of the central nave of the church was a mosaic of a troop of six angels marching in white tunics. The seventh angel was uncovered through scanning by the thermographic survey and by removing a layer of gypsum.

Another tourist attraction that has the people of Bethlehem hopeful is the Walled-Off Hotel (a name based on the Waldorf Hotel in New York) which is located right next to the West Bank barrier wall. Opened by graffiti artist and political activist Banksy, the hotel is filled with millions of dollars worth of Banksy’s art and offers what Banksy describes as, “The worst view of any hotel in the world.”

The Walled-Off Hotel is providing some much needed jobs to the area, as well as drawing attention to the economic problems created by the wall. As the Herald notes:

The hotel looks as if it is there to stay and, also, more restoration works on the Church of the Nativity are planned. Al-Bandak says experts plan to expose more areas of the floor mosaic which date back to the 330s. However, although archaeological research into rock cuttings near the birthplace of Jesus have been discussed, the three denominations that control the church have not yet given permission.
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