Carols and bells in Bethlehem as Christmas draws near

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (Reuters) – Christmas cheer rang out through Bethlehem’s Manger Square on Monday as pilgrims and worshippers flocked to the city revered as Jesus’s birthplace and locals made final preparations for this year’s festivities.

Children dressed as Santa Claus sang carols and rang bells during a Christmas-themed show at the College des Freres, which sits in the biblical city’s central market where holiday decorations and wooden nativity scenes line the narrow alleys.

The main attractions in Bethlehem are the 4th-century Church of the Nativity, built over a grotto where Christian tradition says Jesus was born, and the 16-metre (52-foot) Christmas tree in Manger Square.

On Tuesday – Christmas Eve – the acting Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, will lead a procession from Jerusalem to nearby Bethlehem and later celebrate Midnight Mass in the Church of the Nativity, squeezing through its narrow sandstone entrance.

Bethlehem’s Christmas season lasts through the Eastern Orthodox celebration on Jan. 7 to Armenian Christmas on Jan. 18.

The season offers measured cheer for Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank city, which is separated from nearby Jerusalem by a towering Israeli concrete military barrier.

Bethlehem is enjoying its busiest tourist year in two decades, with foreign pilgrims coming in large numbers, taking advantage of a relative lull in Israeli-Palestinian tension.

Israel said on Sunday it would allow Christians in the Palestinian Gaza Strip to visit Bethlehem and Jerusalem at Christmas, reversing an earlier decision not to issue them permits.

(Writing by Rami Ayyub; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Bethlehem set for a Happy Christmas: more rooms, more inns and part of its manger back

Bethlehem set for a Happy Christmas: more rooms, more inns and part of its manger back
By Stephen Farrell

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (Reuters) – As the Christmas decorations go up in Manger Square, Bethlehem is preparing for its best Christmas for two decades, the town’s mayor and hoteliers say.

Five new hotels are in the pipeline and existing ones are expanding. The town has even extended the opening hours of the Church of the Nativity, revered by Christians worldwide as the place of Jesus’ birth.

But even after three years of relative peace and prosperity, people are still nervous in the small Palestinian town, a few miles south of Jerusalem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

So dependent has Bethlehem become on tourist income that an upsurge of violence anywhere in the volatile Middle East – not just in its near vicinity – spells financial disaster, with nervous tour groups prone to cancelling months ahead.

Sitting in his municipality office overlooking the newly lit Christmas tree in Manger Square, Mayor Anton Salman said Bethlehem looked set to improve upon the 1.5 million visitors it received last year.

“Since three years (ago), things are going up, this year is better than 2018 and 2018 was better than 2017 and it is a continuous increase in the number of tourists who are coming to the city,” Salman told Reuters.

The main bottleneck, he said, was the tiny front door of the Nativity church, through which pilgrims must crouch to enter. Once vast, it was reduced in size centuries ago by the Crusaders, then again during the Mamluk and Ottoman Turkish eras to prevent looters driving carts into the church.

For the first time this year the authorities extended the church’s opening hours from sunset to 8 p.m., Salman said, and in 2020 they plan to enlarge the town’s coach station and to address heavy congestion on the narrow road to Manger Square.

They will even consider asking tourist groups to register in advance in future. “If the number will be high and the church can’t receive all of them we need to look for other plans that can be helpful,” he said.

GHOSTS OF CHRISTMAS PAST

This year townsfolk are abuzz about a new attraction – a wooden relic reputed to be from the manger used by the infant Jesus and sent back last week to Bethlehem from Rome.

But the town remains wary. Bethlehem enjoyed good times until the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising in 2000, which saw years of mutual blood-letting between Israelis and Palestinians, leading tourism to collapse.

Scars remain – most visibly Israel’s high concrete wall that towers over the northern entrance to Bethlehem, and separates it from Jerusalem.

Palestinians call Israel’s military barrier a land grab. Israel says the cordon of fences, ditches and walls has drastically reduced attacks on its citizens.

The manager of the Alexander Hotel in Bethlehem, Joey Canavati, said his family had nearly given up on the town during the lean years, but now had bookings through to 2021. The hotel plans to nearly double in size from 58 to 110 rooms.

“Business has been booming, we have never seen it like this ever before,” he said. “(With) the number of tourists that have been coming in this year we have a huge lack of rooms here in Bethlehem.”

But he added a familiar note of caution: “It’s always about stability.”

(Writing by Stephen Farrell, additional reporting by Rami Ayyub; Editing by Gareth Jones)