Bethlehem rebounds from pandemic, lifting Christmas spirits

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) — The biblical town of Bethlehem marked what was shaping up to be a merry Christmas on Saturday, with thousands of visitors expected to descend upon the traditional birthplace of Jesus as it rebounds from the coronavirus pandemic.

Tourism is the economic lifeblood of this town in the occupied West Bank, and for the past two years, the pandemic kept international visitors away. This year, visitors are back, hotels are full and shopkeepers have reported a brisk business in the runup to the holiday.

“We are celebrating Christmas this year in a very much different way than last year,” said Palestinian Tourism Minister Rula Maayah. “We’re celebrating Christmas with pilgrims coming from all over the world.”

At midafternoon, hundreds of people packed the Christmas Eve celebrations in Manger Square.

Marching bands pounding on drums and playing bagpipes paraded through the area, and foreign tourists meandered about and snapped selfies with the town’s large Christmas tree behind them. Cool gray weather, along with an occasional rain shower, did little to dampen spirits.

Daisy Lucas, a 38-year-old Filipina who works in Israel, said it was a dream come true to mark the holiday in such an important place.

“As a Christian walking in the places in the Bible, it’s so overwhelming,” she said. ‘This is the birthplace of Jesus Christ. As a Christian, that’s one achievement that’s on my bucket list.”

Latin Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the top Roman Catholic clergyman in the Holy Land, arrived from Jerusalem through a checkpoint in Israel’s West Bank separation barrier.

“We are living in very difficult challenges,” he said, noting the war in Ukraine and a recent wave of Israeli-Palestinian violence. “But the message of Christmas is a message of peace.”

“It’s possible to change things,” he added. “We will be very clear in what we have to do and what we have to say in order to preserve the importance of unity and reconciliation among all.”

Pizzaballa walked through Manger Square, waving to well-wishers. Later, he was to celebrate Midnight Mass in the nearby Church of the Nativity, built on the spot where Christians believe Jesus was born.

Billions of Christians were ushering in the holiday, wrapping up a tumultuous year characterized by conflict and violence in many parts of the world.

In war-ravaged Ukraine, the glitzy lights normally spread over over Kyiv’s Sophia Square are missing due to restrictions and power cuts. Instead, a modest tree decorated with blue and yellow lights barely break the gloom of the square. Mayor Vitali Klitschko has called it the “ Tree of Invincibility.”

In the United States, a wild winter storm continued to envelop much of the country, bringing blinding blizzards, freezing rain, flooding and life-threatening cold that created mayhem for those traveling for the holiday.

Present-day reality was visible at Manger Square as banners showing photos of Palestinian prisoner Nasser Abu Hamid were prominently displayed. The veteran prisoner died of cancer last week in an Israeli prison clinic after spending some 20 years behind bars for his conviction in the deaths of seven Israelis.