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Palestinian Authorities allowed Christians to hold celebrations in Bethlehem this week.

Christmas tourism is up around Bethlehem but Arab Christians are leaving

Much to the relief of tourism officials, Christians are returning to holy sites this year after the pandemic ended. While Christmas won’t be a record year like 2019, the numbers are strong from a two-year pent-up demand.

And it’s not just Israel – areas under the control of the Palestinian Authority are seeing more visitors.

“This year is back, and tourism now in Bethlehem is very good,” businessman Yassar Barham, who owns a Barham factory that makes olive wood handicrafts says. “We need tourism in Bethlehem. Without tourism in Bethlehem, we can’t work.”

About two million tourists visit the area each year, said Mayor Hani al-Hayek of Beit Sahour, a majority-Christian town near Bethlehem. “We have more than a hundred workshops for handicrafts for olive wood and mother-of-pearl. Christmas in Beit Sahour is something different because from Beit Sahour the angel announced that Jesus is born on this day. For us, we are the media of Jesus and we are so happy to receive all our visitors from other towns.”

Jewish tour guides banned from Bethlehem

While tourists can more easily visit his village, that’s not the case for Bethlehem.  Jewish tour guides are banned from entering with their tour groups. The groups must now use an Arab guide.

“That’s difficult,” one tour guide, who wished to remain anonymous, told Metro Voice. “Tour guides are licensed by the Israeli government, receive training and, along with their bus driver, are responsible for the safety of guests. When the Palestinians don’t allow us to enter with our groups, visitors become isolated and fall under the authority of Palestinian leaders who are persecuting their own residents.”

READ: Christians disappearing from Bethlehem

Anita Widaman, the publisher of Metro Voice, says Bethlehem has changed significantly since she lived in Israel 35 years ago. “There was a sense of Christian community there,” she says, “but now when people visit there’s a tenseness – it’s difficult to get a feeling of peace.”

Christians leaving in droves

Until now, Bethlehem’s loss of Christians had been a boon to smaller, Christian-majority villages for the last 30 years. Recently, even the Christian villagers are leaving the Palestinian-controlled areas.

bethlehem christmas


Beit Sahour, a town near Bethlehem, continues to suffer from the exodus. Christians have been leaving Palestinian Authority-controlled areas in great numbers for decades. “I view the future of the Christians here as gloomy or unpromising because the ongoing emigration is a big problem to us,” said Samir Qumsieh, general manager of the Al Mahd television station.

It’s unclear exactly how many people have left in the last 20 years. Bethlehem for centuries was a predominantly Christian town. Upwards of 84 percent of its residents were Christians with the remaining Muslim and a few Jewish families. When Israel turned over control of Bethlehem to the Palestinian Authority in an effort to gain peace, Christians were harassed and threatened by their new Palestinian overlords. Churches, including the Church of the Nativity were repeatedly attacked. Today, estimates put the Christian population at between 15 and 20 percent and it is still declining.

Most of the Christians moved to other villages in Judea or fled to Israel proper where they could live their lives undisturbed as citizens with all the rights other Israelis enjoy. But al-Hayek believes at least 20,000 former residents now live in Chile and the United States. That’s a big number considering the current population of Beit Sahour is around 15,000, 80 percent Christian and 20 percent Muslim. According to al-Hayek, so many Christians from his area live in certain areas of Israel or the United States that it’s like being in Beit Sahour.

“They’re seeking for security, seeking an economic situation,” he said. “They are seeking for the best life for their families.”

Christmas almost canceled

This year, Bethlehem Christians and even the city’s Muslim leadership fought the Palestinian Authority’s attempt to fundamentally change, or cancel, the Christmas celebrations The Jerusalem Post reported.

The PA’s Higher Presidential Committee of Churches Affairs in Palestine in Ramallah had called a press conference to make announcements regarding official plans for the celebration of the holiday. However, the department canceled it after the Bethlehem municipality met in early December and decided to protest the move.

“The [Bethlehem] Municipal Council strongly rejects attempts to circumvent the legitimacy and historic right of Bethlehem to arrange and hold the Christmas celebrations in its capacity as the birthplace of Jesus,” its statement said.

For decades, the municipality added, it has been the only group authorized to both plan and kicks off the festivities, which begin well before the annual church services marking Christ’s birth on December 25th.

It had issued its own invitations to the foreign and local press to reveal the city’s arrangements for the holiday season.

The tiff between Bethlehem and Ramallah over Christian holidays is “unprecedented,” wrote Khaled Abu Toameh, the award-winning, Jerusalem-based Arab journalist.

As of this week, Christain leaders in Bethlehem are moving ahead with their celebrations. The influx of visitors will be a welcome sight for businesses that continue to struggle under the PA’s high taxes, graft and manipulation of the local economy.

It could have been different

That economic situation was on the verge of changing in 2020. That’s when the Trump administration, as part of historic peace agreements between Israel and four Arab nations, put forth a sort of “Marshall Plan” for the Palestinian-controlled areas. The U.S., its Arab partners, Israel and European nations were ready to invest $100 billion in the region to create jobs, infrastructure, schools and more. All that was needed for it to happen was that the Palestinian Authority to recognize Israel’s right to exist and end terrorist attacks. The PA, against the wishes of its own people, refused and never responded to the generous offer.

The Biden administration has since put peace on the back burner and put forth no solutions to bridge the wide divide between Israel and the PA.

The Palestinian Authority’s generous benefactors have also reduced their funding, frustrated that much of the money is pocketed or wasted and does not go to help Palestinian residents be they Christian or Muslim.

Now, the Christians are just leaving

Qumsieh sees emigration as a big problem and fears that one day, visitors will find “the Nativity Church, where Jesus was born will be closed, empty museums,” he said.

Qumsieh called on Christians worldwide to help their brothers and sisters in Beit Sahour to continue to live and thrive in the place tied to Jesus’ birth.

–Dwight Widaman | MV

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