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Coronavirus robs Bethlehem of Christmas cheer — and visitors

Church of the Nativity with a Christmas tree next to it and a few people walking through a nearby paved area
A man walks outside the Church of the Nativity, built on the site traditionally believed to be Jesus’ birthplace, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem.
(Majdi Mohammed / Associated Press)

The coronavirus has cast a pall over Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem, all but shutting down the biblical town revered as Jesus’ birthplace at the height of the normally cheery holiday season.

Missing are the thousands of international pilgrims who normally descend upon the town. Restaurants, hotels and souvenir shops are closed. The renowned Christmas tree lighting service will be limited to a small group of authorized people, as will church services on Christmas Eve.

“Bethlehem is dead,” said Maryana Arja, owner of the 120-room Angel Hotel on the outskirts of Bethlehem.

The hotel was the site of the West Bank’s first coronavirus outbreak, when a group of Greek tourists came down with the virus in March.

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Arja kept her 25 workers on staff for several months but ultimately couldn’t continue to pay them and contracted the coronavirus herself. She said she has been forced to close the hotel and lay off the entire staff because there is no sign of the pandemic ending or tourists visiting anytime soon.

“We had 351 tourist groups booked in our hotel this year, each one [comprising] 150 people,” she said. “But they all canceled.”

Arja’s cousin Elyas, the head of the city’s hotel association, said Bethlehem received about 3 million tourists in 2019. With Israel banning tourists because of the coronavirus crisis, and the West Bank’s border crossing with Jordan closed to foreigners, that number is close to zero this year, he said.

“Sixty percent of the city relies on tourism, and their income disappeared when the tourists disappeared,” he said.

The Ambassador Hotel, which is near the Church of the Nativity, built on the site where Christians believe Jesus was born, has reopened one floor in hopes that some local visitors may want to come celebrate in the coming weeks.

Mahmoud Tarman, the hotel’s receptionist, said the Ambassador has brought back eight of its 60 workers to serve local guests. But with the West Bank’s economy devastated by repeated lockdowns, it remains unclear how many people will come.

“At this time of the year, this empty hotel would be bustling with life. But as you see, there is no life, not even a Christmas tree yet,” he said as he pointed at the empty lobby.

Palestinian officials are shuttering the storied Church of the Nativity in the biblical city of Bethlehem over fears of the new coronavirus.

The Palestinian Authority, which administers parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, imposed a new nighttime curfew this week to help contain a spike in coronavirus cases. People must remain indoors from 7 p.m. until 6 a.m., including in Bethlehem.

Officials say the curfew could be extended through Christmas and into the new year if infection levels don’t come down. The Health Ministry has reported about 65,000 coronavirus cases to date in the West Bank, and more than 620 deaths.

Bethlehem’s mayor, Anton Salman, said the city had planned to receive 3,000 invited guests, including local scout troops and musical bands from around the world that normally entertain visitors during Christmas Eve festivities.

He said the Christmas tree lighting, scheduled for Thursday, will be limited to just 15 guests, including local mayors, the district governor and the Latin patriarch and other clergy. The 85-year-old Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, who usually joins the celebration, has been invited but has not said whether he will attend.

Midnight Mass, a solemn event led by the Latin patriarch that is usually attended by religious leaders, local VIPs and hundreds of pilgrims from around the world, has also been scaled back, Salman said. He said officials were still working on the guest list, which is expected to include religious leaders and some foreign diplomats. The event will be closed to the general public but broadcast live for people to watch.

“No one can hold the responsibility of inviting large numbers of people to Christmas events,” he said. “Nothing will be the same during the pandemic.”


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