Empty church pews, full souvenir shelves: Bethlehem struggles to cope with a COVID-19 Christmas


Normally Bethlehem would be teeming with tourists at this time of year. But churches, holy sites and souvenir shops in the city known to many as Jesus's birthplace have been quiet since March, when COVID-19 became a global pandemic. Still, residents say they will find joy in Christmas.

Bethlehem is normally teeming with visitors at this time of year. But the COVID-19 pandemic has put a stop to tourism in the city known to many as Jesus's birthplace. In this photo, a woman walks past closed shops Wednesday, two days before Christmas. (Mussa Qawasma/Reuters)

In Bethlehem, they say the rare conjunction between the planets of Saturn and Jupiter — which has been visible in the night sky this week — is the same star the three wise men followed to reach the baby Jesus.

But that's about the only good news here this Christmas.

Bethlehem is a town that survives on tourism and the pandemic has hit it hard. There have been almost no international pilgrims and few local visitors.

"It's a severe crisis, since the economy of this holy city is dependent on international tourism, which stopped in March," said Palestinian Tourism Minister Rula Maayah.

Someone who knows that all too well is Hanna Nissan.

No souvenir shoppers

A local Assyrian Christian, he's one of only a few hundred people here who still pray in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke.

"The language of the Lord, that's something I'm proud of," he said.

His family owns souvenir shops and factories. Their main store is over 5,000-square-feet in size, and crammed with olive wood carvings of the holy family, busts of Jesus, icons, paintings and trinkets. Normally at this time of year it would be crammed with shoppers and employees too. Now, there's no one here.

Bethlehem shopkeeper Hanna Nissan talks to a relative in one of his family-owned souvenir shops.(Irris Makler/CBC)

Before the pandemic, his family employed more than 120 people.

"We paid them salaries in April, May, June and July, up to the end of July. But by the beginning of August, we laid off 90 per cent or more of our employees, unfortunately," said Nissan. "Up till now, we have zero income, zero. So, yes, it's a disaster.

"It's a disaster for the economy. It's a disaster for the little town of Bethlehem, because little town of Bethlehem mostly depends on local families and businesses. It counts on tourism."

Tourists would come from 'everywhere'

Tour guide Ahmad Tannenhe reports a similar experience. He used to have customers from all over the world.

"From everywhere — from Canada, from America, everywhere," he said. "In the last days before coronavirus, it was crowded here."

Tannenhe loves showing visitors the Church of the Nativity, where the bible says Jesus was born.

Bethlehem tour guide Ahmad Tannenhe is normally busy showing international tourists around the holy city at this time of year. But these days, Tannanhe said he has no one to show around and no income. (Submitted by Ahmad Tannenhe)

It is part of Palestinian heritage, he said.

"The church belongs to our civilisation as Palestinians," Tannenhe said. "So, if we are here in Bethlehem, the only aim to visit is the church."

But since the pandemic began, he has had no one to show around and zero income.

"Since the coronavirus, you find nobody in the church," he said.

Holy site 'eerily quiet'

The cavernous sandstone building that has been a church since the 5th century is typically teeming with tourists, waiting in long queues to see the rock that marks Jesus's birthplace and the spot opposite where the three wise men stood with their gifts for the baby.

During an interview for this story earlier this week, Tannenhe offered a tour of the holy site, which was eerily quiet. Three Greek Orthodox priests conducted a service in an otherwise empty church.

"It's empty, it's gloomy and nobody comes," Tannenhe said.

Greek Orthodox priest Father Issa Thajlieh said he'd never seen the Church of the Nativity this quiet.

"It's so sad," said Thajlieh, whose first name, Issa, is Arabic for Jesus. "We never get used to seeing the church like this. I was born here in 1983, and till now, I've never actually seen it as empty as this."

Greek Orthodox priest Father Issa Thajlieh said that even though the pandemic has hit Bethlehem hard, the town will celebrate Christmas with the "same prayers, the same protocols, the same tradition . . . And the same love.” (Father Issa Thajlieh/Facebook)

Christmas Eve midnight mass is usually the highlight of the year in Bethlehem. It's attended by pilgrims and politicians, and broadcast around the world. Church officials even hold an early mass to accommodate the overflow.

Churchgoers asked to stay home

But earlier this week, Bethlehem emerged from a COVID-19 lockdown, with the Palestinian Authority calling on people to stay home on Christmas Eve – including Christians who would ordinarily come from nearby towns like Ramallah or Hebron, or even Nazareth inside Israel.

Although his business is suffering, Hanna Nissan said he understood the government's reasoning.

"People cannot come, which is a smart way to do it. I mean, everybody has a family that he loves, that he wants to take care of. So basically, it's a smart move," he said.

Hanna Nissan's Bethlehem shops would normally be teeming with visitors during the Christmas season. The photo shows shelves of wood carvings at the Nissan Brothers Bethlehem New Store.(Irris Makler/CBC)

The outlook for Palestinians is not optimistic. There is no vaccine in the Occupied West Bank. And there is little social security to help people who are out of work. Despite that, Thajlieh says it's not a sad Christmas.

Hope, love, life remains

"No, it's never a sad Christmas. We hope because we have hope always. Christmas is Christmas, the nativity of Jesus Christ. It gives us hope, gives us love, gives us life," said Thajlieh.

Arguing that ups and downs are part of our existence, Thajlieh said that even if midnight mass were only to be attended by a small number of locals, that wouldn't diminish its joy or its meaning.

"This year there will be less people, but it will be the same prayers, the same protocols, the same tradition, everything. And the same love."

Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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