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Friends of the Holy Land
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Friends of the Holy Land
World News

"How still we see thee lie": Bethlehem lockdown keeps Christian pilgrims and tourists away

by Kelly Valencia

It will be a particularly quiet Christmas for the town of Bethlehem this year as Covid-19 restrictions have kept tourists and Christian pilgrims away. 

Usually, the birthplace of Jesus sees more than two million visitors per year, most of whom come at Christmas time. 

But this year, the population is facing severe economic hardship given Bethlehem's dependence on income from tourism. 

For Laila Asfoura, director of Bethlehem-based travel agency Laila Tours & Travels and volunteer of Christian organisation Friends of the Holy Land, the covid restrictions have been financially devastating. 

"80 per cent of the local population in Bethlehem are involved in tourism or depend on the income from tourism. We had 32,000 employed in the tourism sector, directly and indirectly. Those [32,000] are now unemployed," she said.

One of Bethlehem's annual highlights is the traditional tree-lighting ceremony which announces the Christmas holy season and the birth of Christ. Although this year's event was widely broadcasted, according to Rami Khader, director of the YMCA in East Jerusalem, the ceremony itself was a distant echo of the usual festivities. 

"It wasn't the same as every year. No locals were celebrating the event, no tourists and there was a lot of fear and uncertainty about the future."

Tree lighting Manger Square 2020

Unlike in Western countries, there is minimal social welfare provided by the government or Palestinian authorities to mitigate the economic impact of covid. 

According to Laila Asfoura, only a single food box was provided to families since the pandemic began in March. 

"They don't give money. There was some help with distributing a box with food equivalent to £20 to families that are badly affected. We don't have health insurance so there are lots of challenges," she added. 

For Laila Asfoura, on top of the obvious physical needs, it is particularly important to be praying for Bethlehem's Christians as numbers continue to decrease.

"Pray for the existence of the Christians in the Holy Lands. We used to be 20 per cent of the total population in 1967. Now we are less than 1 per cent of the total population"

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