Tourism to the birthplace of Christ is key to the revitalization of Bethlehem.
The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is one of Christianity’s holiest sites, built over the place where the Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus. Ever since Emperor Constantine and his mother Helena commissioned the church in 327, pilgrims have traveled to Bethlehem to touch the spot in the Nativity Grotto, marking the location of the cave where tradition tells us 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 placed it on the World Heritage in Danger list. Not long after that the Bethlehem Development Foundation (BDF), was founded by the late Said Tawfik Khoury to restore the church.
Over the last 8 years, $15 million has been spent on the restoration of the 1,700-year-old church. The BDF along with its sister organization, the non-profit American Friends of the Bethlehem Foundation (AFBF), are now raising an additional $2 million to complete the restoration.
“The Church of the Nativity is a treasure of history and of faith,” said Managing Director and CEO Mazen Karam, “We’ve made great progress and look forward to completing the work to return this treasure back to the world.”
In 2019, the restored church was once again a popular tourist site, and had what Karam called a “bounty year,” with visits from 2.5 million tourists. Then the pandemic hit in 2020, halting progress in the effort to revitalize Bethlehem.
“Tourists were lined 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.
Plight 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 about 70,000 Christians who made up 11% of the population. Today only 47,500 Christians live in all of Palestine. That’s only 1.7 % of the population. In Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, only 1 in 5 residents (22%) are Christian today, that’s a sharp decrease from only a decade ago when 4 in 5 (84%) were Christian.
According to a survey conducted by the Philos Project, a U.S.-based initiative promoting positive Christian engagement in the Middle East, 59% of Christians in Palestine said that economic conditions were the main reason they would consider emigrating.
Hope for Bethlehem
Karam sees the work of the Bethlehem Development Foundation as key to improving economic circumstances for Christians in Bethlehem, and keeping Christians from emigrating.
“The only hope is to revitalize Bethlehem, and that’s one of the aims 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 aim of this initiative that we launched in 2011 was to regenerate Bethlehem and develop it in such a way that it again becomes an important tourist destination, like it was in the early centuries. Actually it was the first tourism destination, the Magi came from Persia to see Jesus, the first tourists ever, 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 has begun to carry out improvements in Bethlehem’s infrastructure. A new waste management plan for the city, a municipal solar energy plan, and a new system of roads are now in the works.
“The streets are narrow —some of the streets date back to Jesus time, the width of the street is the width of two donkeys passing by each other,” explained Karam.
Along with investment in infrastructure, the tourism industry has made rapid improvements. According to Karam, in the last ten years, Bethlehem has doubled the number of hotel rooms available. In 2019, he said, the city added five new hotels.
“There are now 51 hotels in the Bethlehem area, and 15 religious guest houses, with almost 4,500 rooms in Bethlehem. That’s a big change from when we started our initiative in 2011,” Karam said.
Even with an increased capacity for tourists, Bethlehem faces considerable obstacles because of the political situation that exists in Palestine.
A recent directive, for example, from the Israeli Tourism Ministry banned overnight visits to Bethlehem, reportedly because of Israel’s coronavirus policies. Tour buses coming from Israel are only allowed to stop in Bethlehem for a few hours before returning to Israel.
Tourists should consider coming to Bethlehem from Jordan, says Karam.
“Being there [in Bethlehem] and staying overnight is an experience in itself. There are hundreds of churches in Bethlehem. Wherever you walk, every stone has a meaning in Bethlehem,” he said.
“The best thing 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 of the Christians remaining in Bethlehem make and sell olive wood, ceramic, and mother-of-pearl artifacts to make a living.
For Americans who would like to support them, Karam suggests purchasing these artifacts at stalls set up in shopping malls throughout the United States, or through the Museum of the Bible which just signed a deal with the BDF to carry these handmade crafts.