Despite COVID, Christmas in Bethlehem brings joy back to hard times | Middle East | News and analysis of events in the Arab world | DW

Bagpipes, trumpets and drums are heard from afar. It’s early evening here in Beit Sahour, a small town near Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank. Young Palestinian musicians from one of the local scout groups practice their training at the sports field near the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the predominantly Christian town.

“This year we trained hard. Most of the members trained almost daily for the march and to participate in the Christmas festivities, ”said Dafer Kassis, leader of the church’s Scout troop.

Led by bagpipers – a musical tradition dating back to the British Mandate at the turn of the 20th century – musicians spin their chopsticks and play Christmas classics like “Jingle Bells” and popular Christmas carols.

“Last year, like in so many other places around the world, we couldn’t celebrate Christmas properly. That is why we are really looking forward to it now and hope that this time it all goes on December 24th. as expected, “says Kassis.

Members of the Beit Sahour Shepherds’ Troupe rehearse for the traditional Christmas parade

Christmas parades are back

Palestinian Boy Scouts and their groups are an essential part of the colorful Christmas festivities in Bethlehem.

The parade traditionally begins on the morning of December 24, as Scout troops from across the region march towards Manger Square. The festivities take place throughout the day until the traditional midnight mass at the Church of the Nativity, venerated by the faithful as the birthplace of Jesus.

But with less than a week of Christmas, it’s unclear whether authorities will tighten COVID-19 restrictions and cut back on the festivities, like last year.

Bethlehem, which is separated from neighboring Jerusalem by a concrete barrier, celebrates Christmas several times to fit the calendars of different Christian denominations. Commemorations for the birth of Christ begin on December 24 for Catholic and Protestant Christians. On January 7, the Orthodox churches celebrate, followed by the Armenian community.

New travel restrictions dampen expectations

Despite an ongoing vaccination campaign in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, the sudden emergence of the omicron variant of the coronavirus has thwarted preparations by the Municipality of Bethlehem to welcome tourists this year.

Israel reopened its borders on November 1, only to close them again a month later to curb the spread of the new variant – just before the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah and the start of the Christmas season. Only a few tourist groups have visited in recent months. Tourists could not travel to the West Bank either.

A Palestinian vendor works in Manger Square in Bethlehem, holding balloons, next to a large Christmas tree

It has been another difficult year for the people of Bethlehem, many of whom depend on tourism.

“People had a little more hope, but after that [the closure] there won’t be many tourists, ”says Elias Halabi, a young Palestinian photographer, standing in front of the large Christmas tree that overlooks Manger Square.

“People are feeling a little depressed again, but we’re still in the Christmas spirit.”

Every year, Halabi takes photos of the event, each time from a different perspective in the city. “We don’t always have the most beautiful tree in Bethlehem, but we have the Church of the Nativity and that’s what makes it special,” he said.

Arab Israelis and Palestinians from other parts of the West Bank are expected to visit the city to celebrate the season, as well as Christians from Gaza with special Israeli permits.

Overall 2021 has been another difficult year for Bethlehem and its people, many of whom are heavily dependent on tourism.

People sit around a table doing crafts

This local center, which supports itself by selling ornaments, cribs and other gift items, has been hit hard by COVID

“It hit us all very hard, whether it was the small craft business, the small guest houses or the big hotels”, explains Mahera Nassar Ghareeb, director of a center for people with intellectual disabilities, located a few steps from the Church of the Nativity. .

The center supports itself in part by selling ornaments, cribs and other gift items made from felted sheep’s wool by the young women and men who come to the association during the day. “But we want to be optimistic that there will be an end to the virus at some point,” adds Ghareeb.

Renovated church, but few visitors

At the heart of the celebrations is the Church of the Nativity, which has welcomed visitors from all over the world for centuries.

“Despite the bad news about the omicron variant of COVID-19, we hope it will be possible for pilgrims to return and celebrate with local Christians,” said Brother Francesco Patton, the guardian of the Franciscan order in the Holy Land.

A handful of people in the nearly empty Church of the Nativity

As in 2020, visitors to the newly renovated Church of the Nativity will find themselves with plenty of room to reflect.

Over the past decade, the church has undergone massive restoration, but the pandemic has made things much calmer. There are no lines these days to enter the cave where a silver star marks the spot where Jesus would have been born.

Just outside, in Manger Square, the Christmas tree and its nativity scene have once again become the center of attention with families and friends snapping photos and selfies.

“The Christmas season for me is a season of hope – even without facing all that we have faced this year with the coronavirus, there have been many other issues over the years,” said photographer Elias Halabi, referring to the overall conflict situation in the region.

“But still with everything around us here, the lighting of the trees, the Church of the Nativity, just being in Bethlehem is something so special in itself, that’s what brings hope for us and brings us joy. “

Edited by: Robert Mudge

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