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Bethlehem's Christmas celebrations dampened by absence of Christmas tree

Bethlehem's Christmas celebrations dampened by absence of Christmas tree

In the ancient and revered city of Bethlehem, a somber atmosphere has replaced the usual festive spirit that marks the celebration of Christmas.

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Bethlehem's Christmas celebrations dampened by absence of Christmas tree Bethlehem's Christmas celebrations dampened by absence of Christmas tree

In the ancient and revered city of Bethlehem, a somber atmosphere has replaced the usual festive spirit that marks the celebration of Christmas. 

This year, the birthplace of Jesus Christ is shrouded in silence and darkness, as the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas casts a shadow over the holiday season.

The streets of Bethlehem, which should be teeming with pilgrims and tourists, are nearly deserted. The Church of the Nativity, standing since the 4th century over the site believed to be where Jesus was born, echoes with emptiness. A silver star in the church's grotto, marking the precise spot of Christ's birth, sees no long queues of the faithful this year. Father Spiridon Sammour, a Greek Orthodox priest at the Church, expressed his shock at the unprecedented quietness.

Manger Square, the heart of Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem, is devoid of its usual adornments. The vibrant lights and the towering Christmas tree that once brought joy and color to the square are absent. Instead, dozens of Palestinian security forces patrol the area, which now reflects none of the jubilation it is known for.

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The economic impact on Bethlehem is severe. Tourism, which accounts for an estimated 70% of the town's income, has been devastated. Over 70 hotels have closed, leaving thousands without employment. Gift shops, usually bustling with customers, opened to a trickle of visitors, if at all. Major airlines have cancelled flights to Israel, further reducing the number of foreign visitors.

Local businesses suffer as the conflict rages on. Ala'a Salameh, owner of Afteem Restaurant, noted that Christmas Eve, typically their busiest day, saw only a single table occupied. The war has also led to restrictions across the West Bank, making access to Bethlehem and other towns difficult and preventing many Palestinians from working in Israel.

The community's response to the crisis is one of solidarity with those suffering in Gaza. Celebrations have been cancelled, and the mood is grim. The music repertoire of the Church of the Nativity choir has shifted from joyful carols to solemn hymns. Bethlehem's mayor, Hana Haniyeh, addressed the crowd with a message of sadness and grief, reflecting the community's sentiment.

Despite the hardships, some, like Latin Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaballa, try to find hope in the Christmas message. Stephanie Saldaña, a resident of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, echoed this sentiment, emphasizing the realness of Christmas as they await peace.

The war in Gaza has resulted in more than 20,000 Palestinian casualties and the displacement of a significant portion of the population. The conflict began with a deadly assault by Hamas on October 7, leading to a surge in violence in the West Bank.

This Christmas in Bethlehem, the city that once heralded the birth of the Prince of Peace, is marked not by celebration but by a collective yearning for an end to the conflict and a return to peace.


 

Edited By: Atiqul Habib
Published On: Dec 25, 2023