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The strands of lights are falling down one after another, forming a kind of curtain of threads in front of the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Following the municipality’s decision to suspend Christmas events and remove decorations, workers are busy dismantling the light canopy on Nativity Square and at other locations in the city. Outgoing mayor Hanna Hanania told CNA: “Bethlehem, as any other Palestinian city, is mourning and sad… We cannot celebrate while we are in this situation.” Following the approach already taken by the Christian churches in the Holy Land, Hanania said they are going to focus on prayer. “We’ll pray for God to have peace in the land of peace.”

In a statement dated Nov.10 — issued after terrorist attacks on Oct. 7 by Hamas in Israel followed by a declaration of war by Israel, all of which has left thousands dead — the patriarchs and leaders of the churches in Jerusalem have urged the faithful “to stand strong with those facing such afflictions by this year foregoing any unnecessarily festive activities” and “focus more on the spiritual meaning of Christmas, holding in our thoughts our brothers and sisters affected by this war and its consequences, and with fervent prayers for a just and lasting peace for our beloved Holy Land.”

However, the Status Quo, a set of rules that has regulated access to and use of the main holy sites since the time of the Ottoman Empire, will still be respected. According to those stipulations, on the eve of Advent, the custos of the Holy Land will make his solemn entrance into Bethlehem. The same will be done on Dec. 24, Christmas Eve, by the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem. This tradition will therefore continue, but the procession along Star Street, the route that tradition says was taken by the Magi, will take place without music and with a reduced presence of the Terra Sancta Scout Troops, boys and girls who typically participate in the procession. 

Christmas is just a month away and Lina, a Christian woman from Bethlehem, told CNA that while Christian families in Bethlehem usually begin to prepare for the celebration of Christmas now, and are used to seeing many pilgrims, this year is different. “Bethlehem is so sad,” she said. “We receive Christmas with sorrow, pain, and suffering. Parents are ashamed to buy gifts for their children, when a lot of families cannot provide the basic needs for them.”

This past Saturday, in the suk (the Arab market), people shopped for their essentials for the week, but no one is coming from Jerusalem anymore nor from the nearby villages. Since the beginning of the war, the main entry points to the city have been closed, and moving between different Palestinian cities is very challenging due to checkpoints and blocked roads.  Furthermore, there is no money to spend. Khali, a local shopkeeper, lights up another cigarette in his shoe store. “Since the beginning of the month, I haven’t sold anything. People don’t even have money for food or to pay the bills; they’re not coming to buy shoes.” 

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 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. 

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. 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. 

By Marinella Bandini

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