The Christian faithful thronged to Palestinian-ruled Bethlehem to celebrate Christmas in the town where it all began.
Thousands of pilgrims from around the world flocked to the West Bank town of Bethlehem to visit the Grotto of the Nativity, revered as the birthplace of Jesus Christ. They stood in long lines to spend just a few minutes in the crowded, stuffy grotto; but for the faithful, it was worth the wait.
Lucy Nunn of North Carolina in the United States was moved to tears. “Really thankful to be here. Thinking about Jesus being born, here, it was just special,” Nunn said.
Moriah Lamb came from Houston, Texas. “I think it’s very meaningful and it’s a very special time of year because it’s the time when Jesus was born. And to be here during that time it’s a very spiritual experience and it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Lamb said.
About 75,000 tourists visited Bethlehem this Christmas, 25 percent fewer than last year. Many people stayed away because of last month’s conflict in the Gaza Strip between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that rules Gaza.
The lower turnout is a blow to the Bethlehem economy, which depends on tourism. Palestinian shopkeeper George Kanavati says foreigners have a misperception that Bethlehem is not safe, even though it is ruled by the Western-backed Palestinian Authority and not Hamas.
“Some people, they feel afraid and they prefer not to come. They think like Gaza is somewhere around Bethlehem and they said, oh, it’s problems and conflicts there and violence, and we are not going to dangerous places,” Kanavati said.
Erica Marusich of Denver, in the U.S. state of Colorado, said for her family, security was not an issue.
“I feel very safe here. I think the people are very kind, and I don’t have any second thoughts about coming here,” Marusich said.
Bethlehem can only be reached by passing through Israel. And since tourism benefits Israelis and Palestinians alike, both sides had an interest in promoting the Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem. There was strong cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and the atmosphere was peaceful and calm.