No room at Bethlehem’s inns once again as tourists return after pandemic

People take pictures of the Christmas tree and nativity scene in Manger Square (Picture: AP)

There is no room at the inn in Bethlehem once again as the city bounces back from coronavirus restrictions.

Tourism is the economic lifeblood of the occupied West Bank town and the pandemic has kept visitors away for the last two years.

But this year they are back, with up to 120,000 tourists expected to visit the traditional birthplace of Jesus during Christmas week alone.

Palestinian Tourism Minister Rula Maayah said: ‘We’re celebrating Christmas with pilgrims coming from all over the world.’

During the afternoon on Saturday hundreds of people packed the Christmas Eve celebrations in Manger Square.

Marching bands pounding on drums and playing bagpipes paraded through the area, and foreign tourists meandered about and snapped selfies with the town’s large Christmas tree behind them.

Cool grey weather, along with the occasional shower, did little to dampen spirits.

Pilgrims flock close to the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ (Picture: AP)
People attend a service at the church (Pictures: Reuters)
Tourists in Santa hats visit the Church of the Nativity (Picture: AFP via Getty)

Daisy Lucas, a 38-year-old Filipina who works in Israel, said it was a dream come true to mark the holiday in such an important place.

‘As a Christian walking in the places in the Bible, it’s so overwhelming,’ she said.

‘This is the birthplace of Jesus Christ. As a Christian, that’s one achievement that’s on my bucket list.’

Latin Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the top Roman Catholic clergyman in the Holy Land, arrived from Jerusalem through a checkpoint in Israel’s West Bank separation barrier.

‘We are living in very difficult challenges,’ he said, noting the war in Ukraine and a recent wave of Israeli-Palestinian violence. ‘But the message of Christmas is a message of peace.’

He added: ‘It’s possible to change things. We will be very clear in what we have to do and what we have to say in order to preserve the importance of unity and reconciliation among all.’

The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, attends Christmas celebrations at the Church of the Nativity (Picture: Reuters)
Pizzaballa greets people (Picture: Reuters)
Palestinian scouts march during Christmas parade (Picture: AP)

Pizzaballa walked through Manger Square, waving to well-wishers.

Later, he was to celebrate Midnight Mass in the nearby Church of the Nativity, built on the spot where Christians believe Jesus was born.

Billions of Christians were ushering in the holiday, wrapping up a tumultuous year marred by conflict and violence in many parts of the world.

In war-ravaged Ukraine, the glitzy lights normally spread over Kyiv’s Sophia Square are missing due to restrictions and power cuts.

Instead, a modest tree decorated with blue and yellow lights barely break the gloom of the square.

Mayor Vitali Klitschko has called it the ‘Tree of Invincibility’.

In the United States, a wild winter storm continued to envelop much of the country, bringing blinding blizzards, freezing rain, flooding and life-threatening cold that created mayhem for those traveling for the holiday.

Present-day reality was visible at Manger Square as banners showing photos of Palestinian prisoner Nasser Abu Hamid were prominently displayed.

The veteran prisoner died of cancer last week in an Israeli prison clinic after spending some 20 years behind bars for his conviction in the deaths of seven Israelis.

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