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Christians in Bethlehem in financial crisis because of lack of tourism

by Donna Birrell

A Christian charity working in the Holy Land says people in Bethlehem have been plunged into financial crisis because of the pandemic.

80 percent of people in the area rely on tourism for their income, but because of a lack of international pilgrimages, many families have been struggling to eat and pay medical bills. 

Friends of the Holy Land (FHL) is appealing to churches to support pregnant mothers with their medical bills and other families facing costly treatment as people living in Bethlehem experience ongoing levels of high uncertainty and unemployment. 

Brendan Metcalfe, Executive Director of Friends of the Holy Land has been speaking to Premier about the situation.

"For about 20 months, the pandemic has meant there's been no visitors to Bethlehem. The Israeli tourist authority is allowing people in now but it takes a lot of time for people to organise visits and pilgrimages. So we anticipate that it won't really begin to come back in anywhere near the numbers that they had before, until the end of the first quarter or the middle of next year.

"Therefore, one of the traditionally busiest times where the businesses around Bethlehem would be getting an income which they would rely on for the rest of the year is going to be empty again for tourists. They will be allowed in, but there will be nowhere near the numbers that we were seeing back in 2019.

"In 2019 there were about two and a half million tourists into Bethlehem and now there won't be anything like that. That impact is very severe, because not only have you got the people directly dealing with the tourists, the people working in hotels, the people who are tourist guides, people in restaurants, but you've got a lot of people in support industries - cleaning businesses, olive wood carvers for souvenirs, the food industries and suppliers for those businesses. 

"It's estimated that about 80 per cent of the population around the Bethlehem area, were dependent on tourism. They've had to try and do other things during the pandemic, but there really aren't many other options available."

Friends of the Holy Land says that almost 40 per cent of Bethlehem families are now buying groceries on credit or relying on food parcels, with healthcare costs pushing families further into debt.

The charity maintains an office in the area working directly with people affected, including Samer Abu Hanna who used to show visitors around Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity. After a year with no tourists, the family began to fall behind on rent, electricity and food bills and faced concerns about how they would pay for ante-natal care and the delivery of their new baby. His wife Mary needed a caesarean section and a hernia operation at the same time and her medical bill came to £1,200 - almost three times the family's monthly income.

FHL is providing grants to Christian families hit the hardest by the pandemic and is launching an Advent Appeal as Bethlehem approaches its second Christmas with very few visitors.


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