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Bethlehem's wartime Christmas brings no comfort or joy

Since the start of the war in early October when Hamas gunmen attacked Israeli towns, interest in visiting Israel has all but collapsed.
Bethlehem's wartime Christmas brings no comfort or joy
Posted at 1:33 PM, Dec 11, 2023
and last updated 2023-12-12 07:33:20-05

In the past, as many as 150,000 people have traveled to Bethlehem in the West Bank for Christmas. This year, however, war has all but stopped tourism there, leaving empty shops and a spiritual void.

Shopkeeper Ahmed Danna says that with no tourists, he spends his days drinking tea and coffee, waiting for customers who never come.

Since the start of the war in early October when Hamas gunmen attacked Israeli towns, interest in visiting Israel has all but collapsed. Reuters reports that October saw 39,000 visitors compared to the typical 300,000 per month, leaving empty shops in the Israeli-controlled West Bank.

The Sancta Maria Hotel would typically be booked full around Christmas with Christians from around the world, coming to celebrate the birth of Christ — this year, its lobby is empty.

The manager, Sami Thaljieh, said that nearly 70 hotels around Bethlehem are closed and 6,000 workers in the tourism industry have been laid off.

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The Rev. Munther Isaac pastors the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem.

"This year, Christmas celebrations are canceled in Bethlehem and for obvious reasons," he says. "It's impossible to celebrate while our people in Gaza are going through a genocide."

Isaac was part of a religious delegation that met with President Biden in late November at the White House. He delivered a letter on behalf of other religious leaders from Bethlehem calling for a constant cease-fire, saying, in part: "Enough death. Enough destruction. This is a moral obligation."

"All the heads of churches in Jerusalem decided that Christmas celebrations will be mainly prayers with no festive celebrations," he said.

While fighting in the West Bank is not at the level of the Gaza Strip, The Associated Press reportsdozens of Palestinians in the West Bank have been killed and hundreds arrested since the beginning of the war. Israel says it is pursuing militants following the deaths of 1,200 Israelis in the initial Hamas assault.

At Isaac's church, a display has been built that he says reflects the harsh conditions this Christmas: A pile of rubble symbolizing the destruction in Gaza centered by a baby Jesus.

"To us, this is a message that Jesus identifies with our suffering. He is in solidarity with those who are oppressed. He's in solidarity with those suffering. So it's a message of comfort and hope to us," the pastor said.


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