'Sad Christmas' as Bethlehem copes with COVID-19

Christmas celebrations have been limited to religious rituals due to the coronavirus.

Christmas in Bethlehem has been badly affected by the coronavirus pandemic, December 24, 2020 (photo credit: AMIR ABU TOAMEH)
Christmas in Bethlehem has been badly affected by the coronavirus pandemic, December 24, 2020
(photo credit: AMIR ABU TOAMEH)
BETHLEHEM – Tourist guide Louis Michel was sitting on Thursday afternoon at the entrance to his family’s souvenir and olive wood handicrafts shop near Manger Square looking at the closed businesses around him.
Most of the shops where Michel's store is located on Milk Grotto Street, near the Church of Nativity, were closed on the eve of Christmas as Bethlehem and other Palestinian cities faced restrictions imposed by the Palestinian Authority government to stem the spread of COVID-19.
PA policemen set up checkpoints at the entrances to Manger Square, where only a few Christians and Muslims posed for pictures in front of a tall Christmas tree.
For the first time in many years, parking space was available a few meters away from the Church of Nativity as all shops were required to close at 19.00 in accordance with COVID-19 restrictions announced by the PA government.
“We haven’t seen tourists in Bethlehem since the outbreak of the coronavirus,” said the 60-year-old Michel. “The economic situation is very bad. On the eve of Christmas, we used to have tens of thousands of people in Bethlehem. This year, however, we don’t even have Palestinians coming to Manger Square because of the coronavirus.”
With the exception of scores of PA policemen and journalists, Manger Square was almost empty, hours before Midnight Mass. The only clients of the coffee and corn carts on Manger Square were policemen, journalists and cab drivers.
Christmas celebrations have been limited to religious rituals, and no foreign dignitaries have been invited to the Church of Nativity as part of precautionary measures to curb the spread of the virus.
“Even during the First and Second Intifadas, we celebrated Christmas and business was not that bad,” lamented Michel. “At least the journalists used to buy gifts. This year, however, we don’t even have many foreign journalists in Bethlehem.”
According to a local health official, currently there are 890 coronavirus cases in Bethlehem and its surrounding towns and villages. At least 91 patients have died since the outbreak of the virus last March, the official said.
Rula Maayeh, the PA Minister of Tourism and Antiquities, told reporters that the tourism sector has suffered huge damage due to COVID-19. She estimated that by the end of this year the cost of the damage to the tourism sector would reach more than 1.5 billion shekels.  
“Hundreds of families have lost their sole income because of the absence of tourists this year,” said George Ibrahim, 45, who until last march worked as a front desk manager at a local hotel. “Almost all the hotels are closed and hundreds of workers are on unpaid leave. This is a very sad Christmas because we many families can’t even afford to buy gifts for their children or a Christmas tree, which costs more than 500 shekels.”
Egyptian-born Franciscan Ibrahim Faltas, Discreet of the Custody of the Holy Land, said that Christmas this year is exceptionally overshadowed by a sad atmosphere because of the coronavirus pandemic. “Tonight’s prayers will focus on praying to God to end the epidemic,” he said. “We hope this year will end with peace for everyone. We hope that the atmosphere of joy and celebration will return to Manger Square next year.”
Earlier in the day, the Civil Administration coordinated the passage of the Latin Patriarch from Mar Elias Monastery – accompanied by a security escort from the Etzion Regional Brigade, The Jerusalem District Police, and the Border Police – to the entrance to Bethlehem.
Despite the challenges presented by COVID-19, the Civil Administration of the Unit for the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), has been at work through the recent weeks – together with the IDF, the Israel Police, and the Border Police – to coordinate holiday events in Jerusalem and Bethlehem in accordance with the guidelines from the Ministry of Health, in order to ensure that the celebrations take place while the health and security of the faithful are preserved. “All these efforts belong to the overall endeavor of preserving freedom of worship and religion for all the Christian denominations,” said a COGAT official.
Lieutenant Colonel Tali Aharon Kroitoro, head of the Bethlehem District Coordination and Liaison (DCL), posted on Facebook a holiday greeting to the residents of Bethlehem. “May the new year be a good one, bringing gladness, peace and prosperity to the entire region,” she said.
Bethlehem mayor Anton Salman said that despite COVID-19, “Bethlehem sends a message of peace to the world.” This year, he added, “we celebrate Christmas according to the health guidelines and the activities are limited only to a small number of clerics.”