There is no room at the inn in Bethlehem this Christmas as the city's hotels are fully booked: something mayor Victor Batarseh attributes to the efforts of Christian churches abroad to bring pilgrims to the city - writes Judith Sudilovsky.
"This is a trend through the work of churches and their special travel agencies," Batarseh told journalists on 16 December, the day after he lit the Bethlehem Christmas tree to the cheers of hundreds of local residents packing Manger Square.
"They bring [the groups] here and have them stay here in our hotels, and eat in our restaurants which are cheaper than in Israel," said Batarseh.
Following an upward swing which began in 2008, Bethlehem hotels have reported that all 4,500 beds are reserved for the holiday season. This was after years of declining reservations due to fallout from the Palestinian uprising called the intifada and its residual affects, he noted.
Christians celebrate Bethlehem as the birthplace of Jesus, who is recorded in the Bible as having been placed in a manger there when he was born, because there was no place for Mary and Joseph at the local inn.
In the past, Batarseh noted, most groups have come to Bethlehem for a short day trip to visit the holy sites and then have been whisked away back to Jerusalem for hotel stays, shopping and meals by their Israeli tour operators.
Due to the current situation, the mayor said he foresaw a need to double the number of hotel beds to accommodate overnight visitors as tourism and pilgrimage continues its upswing.
Despite travel restrictions placed on Palestinians by Israeli permit requirements and the Israeli separation wall that cuts into Palestinian areas in parts, Batarseh said he is expecting another record year of tourists and pilgrims.
He expects more pilgrims to visit Bethlehem over the coming year than tourists and said he promotes the idea of pilgrimage to people overseas during every official visit he makes.
Recently, he said, he returned from a trip to Jakarta in Indonesia where he met church groups and invited them to "come on pilgrimage to Bethlehem and psychologically break down the walls".
Christians make up about 10 per cent of the 240 million people in Indonesia and pilgrims are responding to his appeals, Batarseh reported.
"This is what churches are doing. We don't have a sea, or night clubs or sporting events, so the only way to come to the city is to come for pilgrimage," he said.
Still, the trend of Christian families emigrating from the Palestinian area because of economic and political difficulties is continuing, Batarseh said. Between 250 and 300 families had left the area in the past five years. He denied reports, however, that some of the emigration was due to strife between Christians and Muslims, though some Christians have spoken about tensions.
"There are some frictions which happen but very minor," Batarseh said.
In a separate press conference held the same day in Jerusalem, Israeli officials described a growing cooperation between Israeli tourism officials and their Palestinian counterparts, due to a mutually beneficial interest to increase tourism and pilgrimages to the area.
They said they will ease travel restrictions on Christian Palestinians for Christmas for one month starting on 20 December. Lieutenant-Colonel Eyad Sirhan said Israel is also considering allowing about 100 Christian Palestinians from Gaza to travel to the West Bank.
Israeli tourism ministry deputy director-general, Rafi Ben Hur, said officials are promoting visits to Bethlehem as a part of their meetings with groups abroad, telling them that it is "absolutely safe" to go to the city.
Mayor Batarseh said peace would come to the world only when there is peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
"We need peace," he said. "From this little town of Bethlehem, I ask for all the free world to put pressure on Israel to … stop building settlements and accept peace."
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]