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

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Rita Ora will replace Kylie Minogue as a judge on The Voice 2015
tv
Life and Style
tech
Life and Style
Alan Turing, who was convicted of gross indecency in 1952, was granted a royal pardon last year
life
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Life and Style
life
Arts and Entertainment
Tennis player Andy Murray's mum Judy has been paired with Anton du Beke for Strictly Come Dancing. 'I'm absolutely delighted,' she said.
tvJudy Murray 'struggling' to let Anton Du Beke take control on Strictly
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Sport
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
rugby
Extras
indybest
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
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

Graduate / Junior C# Developer

£18000 - £25000 Per Annum + bonus and benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

IT Project manager - Web E-commerce

£65000 Per Annum Benefits + bonus: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: If you are...

Male PE Teacher

£85 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chester: Job Opportunity for Secondary ...

Teaching Assistants needed in Winsford

Negotiable: Randstad Education Chester: Teaching Assistants needed in Cheshire...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits