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If the Holy Family had a hard time finding an inn to stay in when Jesus was about to be born, it is the inns of Bethlehem themselves that are having the difficulty this year. The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted life in the Holy Land so much that tourism and religious pilgrimage there are practically non-existent.
Just 12 months ago, amid a sustained drop in violence, the town was celebrating its busiest festive season in two decades, and hotels were expanding, said the Jerusalem Post.
Indeed, throughout 2019, some 3 million tourists flocked to Bethlehem, according to Elyas al-Arja, the head of the city’s hotel association. This year, the flow of pilgrims has disappeared.
And that is a blow to the local economy.
“Sixty percent of the city relies on tourism, and their income disappeared when the tourists disappeared,” al-Arja told the Associated Press.
A cousin of his, Maryana al-Arja, owns the 120-room Angel Hotel on the town’s outskirts. That’s where a group of Greek tourists got sick in March, making it the site of the West Bank’s first COVID-19 outbreak. Eventually, al-Arja had to lay off the hotel’s 25 workers and close the facility.
“We had 351 tourist groups booked in our hotel this year, each one 150 people,” she said. “But they all canceled.”
Practically the only positive sign is the opening of one floor of the Ambassador Hotel, located near the Church of the Nativity, in hopes that some domestic visitors may want to visit. The hotel brought back eight of its 60 workers to serve local guests, receptionist Mahmoud Tarman told the AP.
But any guests the hotel might attract will have to limit their sightseeing to the daytime hours, as Bethlehem is subject to a new nighttime curfew being enforced by the Palestinian Authority. Officials say the lockdown could be extended through Christmas and into the new year if the infection levels don’t come down.
According to the AP report, Bethlehem’s mayor, Anton Salman, said the city had planned to receive 3,000 invited guests, including local scout troops and musical bands from around the world that normally entertain visitors during Christmas Eve festivities. He said a Christmas tree lighting, scheduled for Thursday, will be limited to 15 guests, including the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, and other clergy and civic officials. Midnight Mass, presided over by the Latin Patriarch, has also been scaled back, Salman said. The event will be closed to the general public but broadcast live for people to watch.
But Salman told the Jerusalem Post that Christmas from Bethlehem this year will still contain “a message of hope to the whole world, that the world will recover from this pandemic.”
Local religious leaders concur. As the Custodian of the Holy Land, Franciscan Fr. Francesco Patton, presided over several traditional services to open the Advent season this past weekend, he told worshipers, “The pandemic is like the night, there are some nights that are longer than others and some that are shorter, but the night always ends and the sun rises again.
“And if our sun is the Lord Jesus Christ, we must not fear the night,” he said.
What is Christmas Eve in Bethlehem like?