BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) — The biblical city of Bethlehem celebrated a merry Christmas Saturday, with thousands of visitors flocking to the traditional birthplace of Jesus as it recovers from the coronavirus pandemic.
Tourism is the economic lifeline of this city in the occupied West Bank, and for the past two years, the pandemic has kept international visitors away.
This year, the visitors are back, the hotels are full and merchants have reported brisk business in the run-up to the holidays. Although numbers have not reached pre-pandemic levels, the return of tourists has palpably lifted spirits in Bethlehem.
“We are celebrating Christmas this year in a very different way than last year,” said Palestinian Tourism Minister Rula Maayah. “We are celebrating Christmas with pilgrims who come from all over the world.”
Throughout the day, hundreds of people walked through the Manger Square for the Christmas Eve celebrations. Marching bands playing drums and bagpipes paraded through the area, and foreign tourists wandered around and took selfies with the city’s grand Christmas tree behind them.
Cold, gray weather, coupled with occasional rain, did little to dampen spirits, though many people headed inside shops and restaurants to warm up. By nightfall, the crowd had thinned.
Daisy Lucas, a 38-year-old Filipina working in Israel, said it was a dream come true to celebrate the holiday in such an important place.
“As a Christian walking in the places of the Bible, it is so overwhelming,” he said. ‘This is the birthplace of Jesus Christ. As a Christian, that is an accomplishment that is on my wish list.”
Latin Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the top Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land, arrived from Jerusalem through a checkpoint at Israel’s West Bank separation barrier.
“We are experiencing very difficult challenges,” he said, pointing to the war in Ukraine and a recent wave of violence between Israelis and Palestinians. “But the Christmas message is a message of peace.”
“It is possible to change things,” he added. “We will be very clear on what we have to do and what we have to say to preserve the importance of unity and reconciliation among all.”
Pizzaballa walked through Manger Square, greeting supporters before heading to the Church of the Nativity, built on the site where Christians believe Jesus was born. Later, she was going to celebrate midnight mass.
Hundreds of millions of Christians welcomed the holiday, closing a tumultuous year marked by conflict and violence in many parts of the world.
In war-torn Ukraine, the dazzling lights that normally straddle Kyiv’s Sophia Square are out due to restrictions and power outages. Instead, a modest tree decorated with blue and yellow lights barely breaks the gloom of the square. Mayor Vitali Klitschko has called it the “Tree of Invincibility”..”
In the United States, a savage winter storm continued to engulf much of the country, bringing blinding blizzards, freezing rain, flooding, and deadly cold that created chaos for those traveling on vacation.
NORAD, the US military agency known for its playful tradition of tracking Santa Claus as he delivers presents on Christmas Eve, said it did not expect COVID-19 or severe weather hitting North America to affect global travel. of Saint Nick..
“I think Santa will feel right at home in the arctic weather that is reaching the lower 48 degrees,” said Lt. Gen. David Nahom, a NORAD official based in Anchorage, Alaska.
In Mexico, tens of thousands of migrants who fled violence and poverty in their home countries are almost certain to spend Christmas in crowded shelters or on the streets of towns. along the US border, where organized crime routinely targets them.
The current reality was visible in Manger Square when banners displaying photos of Palestinian prisoner Nasser Abu Hamid were prominently displayed. The veteran inmate died of cancer last week in an Israeli prison clinic after spending some 20 years behind bars for his conviction for the deaths of seven Israelis.