Bethlehem Health Chief Calls to Cancel Christmas Ceremonies Amid COVID Spike

With cases rising and observance of restrictions falling in Bethlehem, the tourist-dependent economy faces the prospect of a silent Christmas ■ Nazareth, meanwhile, was recently declared a 'red city'

Jack Khoury
The Associated Press
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A boy walking past a Christmas tree at Bethlehem's Manger Square near the Church of the Nativity, revered as the site of Jesus Christ's birth, December 16, 2015
A boy walking past a Christmas tree at Bethlehem's Manger Square near the Church of the Nativity, revered as the site of Jesus Christ's birth, December 16, 2015 Credit: AFP
Jack Khoury
The Associated Press

Following a surge in coronavirus cases in Bethlehem, the head of the city’s health directorate, Dr. Shadi Al-Lahham, called for a cancellation of Christmas ceremonies. He said worshippers should keep their prayer groups to small numbers.

The entire emergency medical system at hospitals in his district, he said, was full, and a rise in the number of seriously ill was expected.

The West Bank is still officially on an emergency footing but enforcement of lockdowns has been lax compared to the first lockdown in the spring, when case numbers were lower.

Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh recently said the cabinet was monitoring the situation and would make decisions regarding lockdowns or other restrictions as necessary.

The acting Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Pierbattista Pizzaballa arrives for a mass at the Church of the Nativity on Christmas eve in Bethlehem, December 24, 2019. Credit: Ammar Awad/Reuters
The acting Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Pierbattista Pizzaballa arrives for a mass at the Church of the Nativity on Christmas eve in Bethlehem, December 24, 2019Credit: Ammar Awad/Reuters

On Friday, Nazareth, a predominantly Arab city in Israel and home to other key pilgrimage sites for Christians, was declared a restricted area from Saturday until Thursday. 

Christmas festivities are typically a boost for Bethlehem’s flagging economy and for the Holy Land’s dwindling Christian population, which has shrunk over the decades as people fled conflict and searched for better opportunities abroad.

Christmas in Nazareth, 2014
Christmas in Nazareth, 2014Credit: Ilan Assayag
Inside the Church of the Annunciation, Nazareth
Inside the Church of the Annunciation, NazarethCredit: Gil Eliahu

Still, the celebrations in 2019 capped the most successful year in history for Palestinian tourism, according to Tourism Minister Rula Maayah. This year, however, will be vastly different due to the pandemic.

Bethlehem – located just outside of Jerusalem – has invested heavily in tourism, building new hotels and attempting to diversify itself by offering culinary and cultural destinations in addition to its traditional holy sites.

The Christmas tree near Mary's Well in Nazareth, 2018
The Christmas tree near Mary's Well in Nazareth, 2018Credit: Gil Eliahu

Last year, Tourism Minister Rula Maayah estimated that some 15,000 pilgrims stayed overnight in Bethlehem’s fully booked hotels during Christmas. Tourists were also staying in other West Bank towns, such as Ramallah and Jericho, in addition to Jerusalem.

In all, she said the number of foreign tourists visiting the West Bank in 2019 was estimated at 3.5 million people.

Palestinians wearing Christmas costumes distribute gifts to children seated atop the rubble of a demolished house in Bethlehem, December 23, 2019
Palestinians wearing Christmas costumes distribute gifts to children seated atop the rubble of a demolished house in Bethlehem, December 23, 2019Credit: AFP

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