Bethlehem, whose main source of income comes from Christian tourism, has suffered severe economic hardship since the beginning of the violent Palestinian uprising in September 2000. It also is losing more of its Christian population -- and its Christian identity.
With fewer than two weeks until Christmas, Bethlehem Mayor Victor Batarseh said very few pilgrims have arrived so far. Bethlehem is a safe and peaceful city, said Batarseh. He appealed to Christians from around the world to come to visit.
"The message to our Christian brothers is not to forget, forsake Bethlehem city. We need our brothers to stand in solidarity with us [and]... visit," Batarseh told Cybercast News Service by telephone.
Fifty years ago, Christians made up some 90 percent of the population in Bethlehem. Now they represent less than half, and the numbers continue to decline.
Economic concerns as well as persecution have driven many Christians to seek better lives in the West.
Batarseh said he did not know of any families that had left Bethlehem in the last few months. The more Christians that leave Bethlehem, the more it is a disaster not only for Bethlehem but also for the world, which would lose what he called a "model of co-existence."
The enclave of Bethlehem, just six miles from Jerusalem, is now surrounded on three sides by Israel's security barrier, which Israel credits for a dramatic drop in terror attacks from the West Bank. Passage to and from the city is through a high-tech border crossing and passport control checkpoint that works like airport security.
"We need to break these walls of separation, not physically but psychologically. We need to build bridges, not walls," Batarseh said in reference to the barrier.
"[It will be a] very sad Christmas for the citizens of Bethlehem," Batarseh said. The security barrier, the summer war in Lebanon between Israel and Hizballah and the trouble in the Gaza Strip as well as a "bad political situation" in the Middle East have all affected tourism and pilgrimage, Batarseh said.
But Judeh Morkus, the Palestinian Authority minister of tourism, offered a more optimistic assessment of the tourism situation. While tourism is less than half of what it was in pre-intifadah days, it has been on the rise since last year, he said.
"It's a very bad political and economic situation," said Morkus, "[But we] hope that will change in the coming weeks."
Before the intifadah, nearly a million people a year visited the city, Morkus said in a telephone interview.
When Christians around the world were marking the second millennium since the birth of Jesus in 2000, the Holy Land expected record tourism. But the Palestinian uprising, which started in September of that year, scared away visitors and sent tourism plummeting.
Last year some 300,000 pilgrims and tourists visited Bethlehem, said Morkus, a Catholic who was born and raised in the city. (That is three times the number who visited in 2004.) And by the end of 2006, Bethlehem is expecting to see some 450,000 visitors for the year, he said.
For the first time since the intifadah erupted, the 2,000 hotel rooms in Bethlehem are fully booked over the Christmas holiday, said Morkus. Thousands of visitors are expected over the two-day Christmas holiday.
According to Morkus, the P.A. has granted the Bethlehem Municipality $50,000 to help pay for decorations and activities during the holiday season.
Israeli Christian Arabs from Nazareth and Haifa are being encouraged to join the celebrations in Bethlehem. And a traditional December 24th reception for residents of the city that was held in the prior to 1997 may be re-instituted, said Morkus.
An Israeli Tourism Ministry official said Israel would do all it could to facilitate tourism and pilgrimage to Bethlehem during the Christmas holidays. As usual Israel will provide a free shuttle service for pilgrims traveling from Jerusalem to Bethlehem from noon on Christmas Eve until noon on Christmas day.
The Tourism Ministry also is providing all those who travel to Bethlehem "a Christmas greeting" and a "surprise trinket" said the official. Everything is being done to make passage to Bethlehem as easy as possible, he said.
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