O’ empty town of Bethlehem: a trickle of visits to the site of Christ’s birth thanks to intifadas and ongoing tensions

Intifadas and ongoing tensions are keeping Christian pilgrims and tourists away from Bethlehem, says

For years, Palestinian Christians have been quietly abandoning the place where Jesus is said to have been born in a manger. Middle-class residents here have packed their bags for less chaotic lives in Latin America, Europe and the US. Tourism ground to a halt more than a decade ago, during the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, and is now experiencing a comeback.

But Palestinians say major challenges remain: the Israeli military checkpoints and security barrier that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem, a 10-minute drive away; the shuttered homes and shops that are symbols of a stagnant economy; and the Israeli settlements that are growing around Bethlehem on land claimed by the Palestinians for a future state.

Vera Baboun, Bethlehem’s first female mayor, wants to make her city open to all, especially to Christian pilgrims – and those Palestinians who have left. A Christian whose late husband spent three years in an Israel jail during the first intifada, Ms Baboun wants to lure back former residents and roll out the red carpet to encourage Christian pilgrims to extend their stays.

Borrowing a tactic from American retailers, the mayor lit the Christmas tree in Manger Square two weeks earlier than usual this year, added singers and dancers to the daily festivities and kept the crafts market open for eight days instead of one.

She is expediting permits for five boutique hotels that will add 300 rooms to the existing supply of 3,700, which are filled during Christmas week but often sit empty during the rest of the year.

Efforts are under way to improve handicapped accessibility to the town for ageing visitors and to renovate the Church of the Nativity, which Unesco says is the oldest Christian church still in daily use. “This is the place where the message of peace was born with Jesus Christ,” Ms Baboun said. “When they talk about reviving the message, you need to revive the city.”

Clergy say the out-migration eventually could reduce Bethlehem’s historic churches to mere tourist attractions – a body without a beating heart. “It’s not enough to come and see the ancient stones,” said Father Shomali, a parish priest. “You need the living stones.”

Bethlehem was engulfed by fighting during the second intifada, including a 39-day stand-off between Israeli troops and Palestinian militants who hid inside the Church of the Nativity. A new film titled Bethlehem, out in February, recalls those tumultuous days and tells the fictional story of an Israeli intelligence agent and his young Palestinian informant. But with the violence long over and US-brokered peace talks again under way, Ms Baboun is ready to focus on the future.

Tourist visits are up this year, to about 1.6 million, Palestinians officials say. Most visitors come by charter bus, however, and linger just long enough to peer into the grotto at the Church of the Nativity where Jesus is said to have been born. Few stop to buy a string of rosary beads, or enjoy a plate of hummus. Almost all spend the night at hotels inside Israel, which competes with Bethlehem for tourism dollars. “We don’t benefit from the buying power of these tourists,” said Fayrouz Khoury, deputy director of the chamber of commerce.

Taxis from Jerusalem often refuse to take travellers into Bethlehem, and Jewish Israelis are warned against entering the city, according to the Israeli Defence Forces – the Israeli army. Detailed Google navigational maps end at the Israeli military checkpoints. “We cannot improve the tourism sector under occupation,” said the Palestinian Tourism Minister Rula Ma’aya.

Efforts to stem Christian emigration have gone even more slowly. During the Ottoman era a century ago, Bethlehem was 90 per cent Christian. Today the city of 22,000 is more than two-thirds Muslim, thanks to an exodus of Christians, an influx of Palestinian Muslims and a higher Muslim birth rate.

Christian leaders arrange meetings with tourism and economic development officials with visiting emigrés, who show up “with a lot of enthusiasm to invest and create jobs”, Mr Khoury said. “But when they see the conditions aren’t so encouraging, they leave again.”

One sign of international support for Bethlehem’s rejuvenation is a new billboard in Manger Square touting a “gift from the American people to the Palestinian people” – a US Agency for International Development-funded road improvement project, part of a $100m (£61m) West Bank infrastructure package.

“We’ll better connect people with jobs and better connect tourists and pilgrims to this holy place,” Secretary of State John Kerry said during a visit here last month. “This is a road not just worth building here, but it’s a road worth travelling on, for all of us.”

©The Washington Post

Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol
art'Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' followed hoax reports artist had been arrested and unveiled
Life and Style
tech

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

Voices
Stephanie first after her public appearance as a woman at Rad Fest 2014
voices

Arts and Entertainment
James Blunt's debut album Back to Bedlam shot him to fame in 2004
music

Singer says the track was 'force-fed down people's throats'

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
peopleJust weeks after he created dress for Alamuddin-Clooney wedding
Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010
films

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

Sport
football West Brom vs Man Utd match report: Blind grabs point, but away form a problem for Van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
Bloom Time: Mira Sorvino
tvMira Sorvino on leaving movie roles for 'The Intruders'
Arts and Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio talks during the press conference for the film
films

Film follows park rangers in the Congo

Arts and Entertainment
Gotham is coming to UK shores this autumn
tvGotham, episode 2, review
News
i100
Sport
Adel Taraabt in action for QPR against West Ham earlier this month
footballQPR boss says midfielder is 'not fit to play football'
News
First woman: Valentina Tereshkova
peopleNASA guinea pig Kate Greene thinks it might fly
Voices
Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary: 'There are pressures which we are facing but there is not a crisis'
voices

Does Chris Grayling realise what a vague concept he is dealing with?

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Nursery assistants required in Cambridgeshire

£10000 - £15000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Nursery assistants re...

History Teacher

£60 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: Job opportunities for Seconda...

** Female PE Teacher Urgently Required In Liverpool **

£120 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: Job opportunities for Secon...

** Cover Supervisors Urgently Required In Knowsley **

£60 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: Job opportunities for Seconda...

Day In a Page

Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album