The streets of Bethlehem are crowded for Christmas again, after two years of COVID-related restrictions. In the Church of the Nativity, the faithful celebrated Jesus’s birth as the number of Palestinian Christians continues to dwindle.
Christian tourists from around the world have come to Bethlehem to celebrate the birth of Jesus. While the numbers have not quite reached pre-pandemic levels, hotels and restaurants are almost full bringing an economic boost to the West Bank.
Thousands filled the Church of the Nativity, on the site where Christians believe Jesus was born, for the traditional midnight mass which was broadcast around the world.
Palestinian officials including President Mahmoud Abbas attended the service in Bethlehem.
Latin Patriarch Pierbatista Pizzabella said that the world is no longer focusing on the Palestinians, who are still waiting for their right to live in dignity and freedom.
He said that Palestinians are living through difficult challenges, but the message of Christmas is a message of peace. Christmas comes as the Palestinian Christian population in the West Bank has dwindled to less than 1% of the total population.
Hani al-Hayek is the mayor of Beit Sahour, one of the few places in the West Bank that still has a Christian majority. He says he worries the Christian presence could decline even further.
"We are facing big immigration from here to Europe, to United States, especially to United States, we have big immigration from Beit Sahour, Beit Lehem, Beit Jallah, and it’s not good for us," he said. "We encourage people to stay here, to keep in their homes, their lands, but they need safety, they need security for their children, their future.
He was referring to the ongoing clashes between Israelis and Palestinians, in which 150 Palestinians have been killed according to the Palestinian health ministry. That makes this the deadliest year for Palestinians in 16 years. Twenty Israelis have been killed in the violence.
Israeli officials say most of the Palestinians killed were gunmen who attacked Israeli soldiers when they tried to make arrests; Palestinian officials said some of those killed were not involved in any clashes.