Just steps away from the Basilica of the Nativity, the shutters of the local businesses remain lowered. These are all shops selling souvenirs and local handicrafts, but without pilgrims, no one is buying. Some open only by request. Production has also come to a standstill: It’s not affordable to take on costs knowing that the Christmas season — typically the busiest in terms of business — is lost, and the items will linger on the shelves collecting dust for months. Uncertainty about the future looms over everything. “We don’t know what awaits us,” a shopkeeper said, sighing. “We don’t know if we can reopen or if we’ll be forced to leave as well.”
According to the statistics provided to CNA by the Ministry of Tourism, the economy of Bethlehem relies on tourism for 60%-70%. “We were expecting that 2023 was supposed to be the peak year” with a record attendance from the U.S., Majed Ishaq, director general of the marketing department of the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities of Palestine, told CNA. But the war has changed everything. “We expect that 12,000 out of 15,000 workers are no longer employed in the tourism industry. I can estimate that 90% among them are Christians,” he said.
Roni Tabash in his store in Manger Square, Bethlehem, which has been in his family for almost a century. They sell handmade items crafted by local artisans. Today, Tabash carries on the business in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. Nov. 18, 2023. Credit: Marinella Bandini
Roni Tabash is one of the best-known Christian merchants in the city. For almost a century, the family shop has overlooked Nativity Square. They sell handmade items crafted by local artisans. Today, it’s his responsibility to carry on this business, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather.
“This is usually the busiest period for our work, but now there is no work. We open because this square is a piece of our heart,” he told CNA.
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Typically during this time of year, the large Christmas tree of Bethlehem is set up just a few meters away. “However, our true joy is not the Christmas tree. Our real joy is to let hope enter every sad heart in this very difficult situation,” Tabash added.
Milk Grotto Street, a few meters from the Basilica of the Nativity, in Bethlehem. The street is lined with souvenirs and local craft shops, all of which are closed today. Credit: Marinella Bandini
The footsteps echo in the deserted Basilica of the Nativity. In the Grotto of the Nativity, after the procession of the Franciscan friars, is Fares with his baby girl, who is not even 5 months old. They are from Gaza. His wife is still in Khan Yunis, in the south part of the Gaza Strip. He manages to hear from her occasionally. Their first daughter was born with a heart problem and was operated on a few days later in Israel. They were supposed to return after the rehabilitation, but the war has trapped them in Bethlehem.
Fares, from Gaza, with his 5-month-old daughter. She was born with a heart problem and was operated on a few days later in Israel. They were supposed to return after the rehabilitation, but the war has trapped them in Bethlehem. Credit: Marinella Bandini
Other families from Gaza found themselves in Bethlehem when the war broke out. They had arrived through the faith-based international community Shevet Achim, which helps children from Gaza, Iraq, and Syria come to Israel for open-heart surgeries. They are all Muslims and are hosted in a Christian hospitality facility.
Inside the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Since the war started on Oct. 7, pilgrim and tourist groups have cancelled visits and the basilica is always empty. This part of the basilica is guarded by the Greek Orthodox. Credit: Marinella Bandini
Lina works at a pediatric hospital in Bethlehem, where she is responsible for the Social Services Department. “People are afraid to come to the hospital or they cannot reach it,” she explained. “We try to be in contact with them, to do counseling for them and to reach them with the hospital car, to provide the medications for them.”
The few who arrive at the hospital “don’t have enough money to pay, though it is a charitable hospital — the fees are very symbolic. Also,” she continued, “there are families who come asking for financial support.”
A painting on the separation wall between Israel and the Palestinian Territories shows a view of Jerusalem. Nov. 18, 2023. Credit: Marinella Bandini
Lina said that as Christians living in the Holy Land they will not give up celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ “because this is what brings hope in our lives. I believe that the greatest gift that God has given us is the gift of hope and with Christmas we nurture this hope in our hearts.”
Mass in St. Catherine's Latin Church, next to the Basilica of the Nativity, in Bethlehem, on Sunday, Nov. 19, 2023. Credit: Marinella Bandini
There is one place that is crowded in Jerusalem these days: Sunday Masses at the Latin Church of Santa Caterina, next to the Basilica of the Nativity. People are seeking peace and hope.
A large number of faithful attended Mass on Sunday, Nov. 19, at the Latin Church of St. Catherine, in Bethlehem. Credit: Marinella Bandini
“We’re approaching Advent time,” the Latin parish priest of Bethlehem, Father Rami Asakrieh, told CNA. “This holy time is always an invitation for humanity to accept God’s invitation, of his love and of his peace. We decided to concentrate on the meaning of Christmas more than on showing Christmas, by clothes or by festivals and markets. All these are beautiful things, but they’re not the real meaning of Christmas.”