While the Coronavirus pandemic put a damper on 2020 Christmas celebrations, traditional marching band parades rekindled this year’s Christmas spirit in Bethlehem.
Palestinian scout troops marched towards Manger Square banging drums and playing bagpipes and passing along the narrow cobble-stoned route, known as the Star Street, as they entertained local faithful who gathered at the square ahead of the expected arrival from of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem.
Pierbattista Pizzaballa headed the annual procession from the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem to Manger Square, passing as usual through a massive metal gate in the towering Israeli concrete wall that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem.
He was welcomed at Manger Square by a host of officials and clergy ahead of the midnight mass at the Church of the Nativity, built over the grotto where Christian tradition says Jesus Christ was incarnated.
Before the pandemic, Bethlehem would see the influx of thousands of Christian pilgrims from around the world, fully booking hotels dotting the biblical hometown of Jesus and revitalizing the local economy. However, Israel, the main entry point for foreign visitors heading to the occupied Palestinian territories, has imposed a ban on nearly all incoming air traffic as a means to rein in the spread of the highly contagious omicron variant, keeping foreign tourists away for a second consecutive year.
While some foreigners residing in Israel and Christian citizens of Israel returned this year to attend the celebrations, it was a far cry from over 3.5 million tourists who visited Palestine in 2019.
Christians from the besieged Gaza Strip generally receive special permits from the Israeli authorities to attend the Christmas celebrations. This year, Israel has issued some 470 permits for Christians in Gaza.
Palestinian Christians have been suffering as a result of Israel’s policies of land grab, growing colonial settlement construction, movement restrictions and, for those living in Jerusalem, the revocation of residency identity cards. All these measures have entrenched the isolation of Palestinian Christians and curtailed their economic possibilities, contributing to the steady stream of Christians choosing to leave their homeland.
The threats posed to Christian presence throughout Israel, including frequent and sustained attacks by Jewish settler groups and attempts to takeover church property, has recently prompted the church hierarchs in Jerusalem to issue a statement warning of “a systematic attempt to drive the Christian community out of Jerusalem and other parts of the Holy Land.”