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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Buttoned up: Ryan Reynolds with Helen Mirren in ‘Woman in Gold’
filmFor every box-office smash in his Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. Now he says it's time for a reboot
News
people
News
Actress Julianne Moore wins the Best Actress in a Leading Role Award for 'Still Alice' during the 87th Annual Academy Awards in Hollywood, California
people
Sport
Ross Barkley
footballPaul Scholes says it's time for the Everton playmaker to step up and seize the England No 10 shirt
News
'We will fix it': mice in the 1970s children’s programme Bagpuss
science
Life and Style
2 Karl Lagerfeld and Choupette
fashion
  • Get to the point
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

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Executive

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Retail Buyer / Ecommerce Buyer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working closely with the market...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - CAD Software Solutions Sales

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A reputable company, famed for ...

Ashdown Group: Client Accountant Team Manager - Reading

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: The Ashdown Group has been engaged by a highly resp...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

War with Isis

Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

A spring in your step?

Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
10 best compact cameras

A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

Paul Scholes column

Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?