Christians flock to Holy Land sites for Christmas festivities

Israel has welcomed an estimated 150,000 Christians for the festive season, according to the Tourism Ministry, with many opting to join the celebrations in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth.

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December 24, 2018 16:01
2 minute read.
 Issa Kassissieh, wearing a Santa Claus costume, rides a camel and distributes Christmas trees in Je

Issa Kassissieh, wearing a Santa Claus costume, rides a camel and distributes Christmas trees in Jerusalem's Old City December 21, 2017. (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)

Tens of thousands of Christian pilgrims and tourists are expected to celebrate the Christmas holiday in Israel, taking part in the festivities at Christianity’s holiest sites.

Israel has welcomed an estimated 150,000 Christians for the festive season, according to the Tourism Ministry, with many opting to join the celebrations in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth and visiting the very locations where the Christmas story unfolded.

More than half the tourists – some 56% – who visited Israel in 2018 were Christian, the ministry said, with approximately 19% defining themselves as pilgrims. Forty-one percent of Christian visitors were Catholic, 27% Protestants and 28% Orthodox.

Christian tourism has made a significant contribution to Israel’s record-breaking year of incoming tourism, with visitors already surpassing last year’s record of 3.6 million by mid-November. The four millionth tourist is expected to land before the end of the year.

The vast majority of Christian visitors visit Jerusalem during their stay, and approximately 40% also visit Tel Aviv-Jaffa. The most visited site by Christian tourists is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, followed by the city’s Jewish Quarter, the Western Wall, Via Dolorosa, Mount of Olives, as well as Capernaum in the Galilee and the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth.

“Israel is in the midst of a tremendous boom in tourism, and 2018 will set a new record for tourism to Israel,” said Tourism Minister Yariv Levin. “We will reach an all-time record of four-million incoming tourists by the end of the year. The Holy Land will welcome all the tourists who come to visit.”

Last year, countries with the highest proportion of Christian tourists included Mexico, Philippines and Romania. While 56% traveled to Israel independently, a further 32% visited Israel as part of an organized tour and 12% took advantage of package deals.

According to a Tourism Ministry survey, a total of 73% of Christian tourists said they would “certainly” or “probably” return to visit Israel again.

Enabling pilgrims to enjoy Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem, the Tourism Ministry provided free transportation to and from Jerusalem from 2 p.m. on Christmas Eve to 2 a.m. on Christmas Day.

The iconic Bethlehem Christmas midnight mass at the Church of St. Catherine and the Church of the Nativity, the basilica where Christian denominations widely believe Jesus was born, attracts thousands of pilgrims every year. While tickets to enter the church are free but limited, large crowds gather to watch outside on large screens in the city’s Manger Square.

Today, there are approximately 175,000 Christians living in Israel, constituting just 2% of the country’s population, according to data published by the Central Bureau of Statistics on Monday.

Israel’s Christian population grew by 2.2% in 2017, and by 1.4% in 2016. While the majority (77%) of the country’s Christian population are Arab, last year’s increase is primarily due to the immigration of almost 600 Christians from Ethiopia’s Falash Mura community.


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