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Despite difficult Christmas season in Bethlehem devoid of tourists, local Christians have hope

Jouline Salameh, 28, and her husband, Elia Khair, 31, pose near a mural of Ruth and Boaz at their restaurant Pastores Lounge near Shepherd's Field in Beit Sahour, West Bank, Dec. 21, 2023. (OSV News photo/Debbie Hill)

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (OSV News) — Almost a year ago, Elia Khair and Jouline Salameh opened their own high-end tourist restaurant in Beit Sahour, an eastern suburb of Bethlehem not far from Shepherd’s Field. Highlighting traditional Palestinian dishes like a one-pot rice dish Makloubeh, the young Christian couple was looking optimistically forward to their first busy holiday season as they awaited the birth of their first child.

But after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on southern Israeli communities, which left 1,200 people murdered and 239 mostly civilian hostages taken into the Gaza Strip, and the outbreak of the Israeli-Hamas war in Gaza, with over 20,000 Palestinians killed according to Gaza health officials, all reservations were canceled.

Now, the streets of Bethlehem — normally filled with pilgrims at this time of the year — are empty, and many stores and restaurants dependent on tourism are closed. Foreign airlines have canceled flights to Israel’s Ben-Gurion International Airport — through which most pilgrims to the Holy Land travel — devastating the tourism industry.

Just now beginning to recover from the COVID-19 financial crisis, Bethlehem’s economy is mainly dependent on the tourism industry and pilgrimages, and on construction workers with jobs in Israel. But with the onset of the war, all checkpoints were largely closed and laborers were unable to leave for work in Israel.

“In October, we had so many reservations for tourist groups, but then they were all canceled when the war broke out,” said Salameh, 28, who — while owning a restaurant — works as a part-time accountant and secretary at St. Catherine Church. “I am relying on my God to help the situation and to make it peaceful. We are thinking of how we can live on the basics, and putting things aside for the baby. We are hoping the war will end and the tourists will come back.”

The pilgrims and the “Christmas vibe” they generally bring is sorely missed in Bethlehem, she said. Though the traditional entrance of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem will take place, and the scouts will accompany him, it will be a silent procession and lacking in the normal festivities.

“I am always looking forward to Christmas and the celebrations,” Salameh said, especially watching her husband leading the scout parade into Manger Square.

Some young Christians who had been previously considering leaving, have left, she said, including her brother-in-law. But she and her husband are firm in their decision to stay in Bethlehem.

Father Rami Askarieh celebrates Mass in St. Catherine Church, adjacent to the Church of the Nativity, in Bethlehem, West Bank, Dec. 17, 2023, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas. (OSV News photo/Debbie Hill)

Khair, 31, still hoping to be able to ride out the war and keep his restaurant despite the high cost of rent, quickly pivoted to serving the local population with fast food fare of falafel, but residents are not prioritizing eating out and most are saving their money for essentials, he said.

“The situation has never been stable here, and we Christians are a minority,” Khair said. “We don’t want to leave the country and go abroad. We want to stay here in the country and raise our daughter here in the Holy Land; this is the birthplace of Jesus Christ and the most holy place for us as Christians.”

Even the owners of the larger tourism stores have been hit, noted Father Rami Asakrieh, St. Catherine’s parish priest, as they had bought a large amount of stock in preparation for what was expected to be a good tourist and pilgrim season, and are now left with no savings and no cash.

“The unstable economic and political situation with war has made people afraid for their lives and the lives of their children,” he said. “The war can finish now, but the consequences will remain and it will take time to get the economy back on track, so there is a lot of anxiety.”

The parish social services are being hard-pressed to meet all the increasing needs of the community, he said. Even people who were not in need before have been asking for help, the priest noted, with demand tripling from 400 families to 1,200.

The Latin Patriarchate has begun to distribute food coupons in Bethlehem and also in northern parts of the West Bank due to the massive loss of jobs in Israel and tourism, noted patriarchate’s CEO Sami El-Yousef. They have begun a local job creation program in the West Bank, to help some of the parish’s members who work in the construction sector by taking part in renovations of several parish buildings. According to patriarchate social worker Dima Khoury, they have distributed support packages to almost 400 families in the West Bank, half of those in the Bethlehem governorate.

A Palestinian Catholic woman holds her as he lights a candle in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, West Bank, Dec. 17, 2023, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas. The church is built on what is believed to be the site where Jesus was born. (OSV News photo/Debbie Hill)

Pontifical charity Aid to the Church in Need has also been delivering emergency aid to Christians, providing food, medical support, and financial assistance to the faithful not only in the West Bank, but also in East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, where 1,017 Christians now living, of whom 135 are Catholic.

In solidarity with all the victims of the war, the Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in the Holy Land asked the Christian community in a November statement to forgo any festive public celebrations of the holiday, while still focusing on the spiritual meaning of the holiday, said Father Asakrieh.

He said more people are coming to Sunday Mass as they seek out comfort in their community and faith, and the parish has been active in providing social meetings for the young people and children of the parish to still enjoy the Christmas spirit.

“We will continue to concentrate on the spiritual Christmas celebration because we need in these days the hope from God for peace. We will continue (celebrating) in church because it is a support for people and we can teach children to pray for peace,” he said. “Hate and revenge is never a solution. We have to find a real agreement. We are also looking for signs of hope. We have to find the light in this darkness.”

Sister Nabila Saleh, who remains in Gaza and assists Christians sheltering in Holy Family Parish told ACN, who helps her run her kindergarten, that, “Our presence here is both a challenge and a service because the number of Christians is very small. There are many obstacles, but our duty is to serve the whole community, without distinction. Our main goal is to empower Christians in their homeland. It is very important to us to serve in the field of education for the young.”

Father Gabriel Romanelli, pastor of the Holy Family Parish, told ACN that Christians in the West can help the faithful in the Holy Land “through prayer, spreading the word, and material aid.” Above all, the priest said that, “our Christians, like everybody else, ask for prayers that the Lord have mercy on us all and grant us peace.”

Judith Sudilovsky writes for OSV News from Jerusalem.

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