UN report paints bleak picture of Bethlehem
Nearly one tenth of the Christian population of Bethlehem has gone abroad in the past four years says a United Nations report published yesterday.
It said that the tourism industry in the birthplace of Jesus had been strangled by Israel's restrictions on the movement of visitors.
The report's publication comes as a delegation from the British Section of the catholic peace organisation Pax Christi take more than 600 peace messages from schools, churches and religious communities in England, Wales Ireland and Scotland to Bethlehem.
A total of 2,071 Palestinian Christian families from the region have gone abroad since September 2000. This accounts for 9.3 per cent of the Christian community in the area.
Bethlehem is surrounded by roadblocks, checkpoints, dirt mounds and security barrier. An average of only about 7,000 people have visited Bethlehem each month this year, compared with the nearly 92,000 total in 2000.
In the past four years, 28 hotels, 50 restaurants and 240 souvenir workshops have closed down.
"Once a bustling cultural and spiritual centre hosting tourists and pilgrims from around the world, Bethlehem has become an isolated town, with boarded-up shops and abandoned development projects," said the report.
"Bethlehem is surrounded by 78 physical obstructions," erected by the Israeli army, cutting it off from Jerusalem and some of the rest of the West Bank, the UN report said.
Apart from 10 checkpoints and 55 dirt mounds blocking the roads, Bethlehem is partially dissected by 10.4 kilometres (16.7 miles) of separation barrier, the report said.
When finished, the barrier - which Israel argues is vital to preventing Palestinian attacks on its soil - will stretch for 63 kilometres around the town, it said.
The number of tourists visiting Bethlehem has dropped from 91,726 in 2000 to 7,249 in 2004, according to the report.
The number of hotel rooms occupied has dropped from 22.1 percent in 2000 to 2.4 percent in 2004, it said.
The lack of economic and social options has led to the emigration of 9.3 percent of Bethlehem's Christian community since 2000, it added.
The total population of Bethlehem is 61,000, not including some 15,000 Palestinians living in refugee camps around the city.