Despite political conflict involving Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, Bethlehem remains the centre of Christian spirituality, especially at Christmas, says the Palestinian minister of tourism, Khouloud Deibes - writes Judith Sudilovsky.
"Christmas is a source of joy and pride for us Palestinians because here it happened," Dr Deibes, a Christian resident of Bethlehem, said during a press briefing on 14 December 2010.
She noted that Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem include those of the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Christians. "Here we have the time also to celebrate our churches; they are living monuments, not museums."
The tourism minister said Christmas illustrates the human side of the political conflict, such as the lack of freedom of movement and the need for permits to travel outside of Bethlehem.
"We are still under occupation, people are still suffering. Christmas is a good occasion to show how the political situation is negatively impacting the Christian presence in the Holy Land," Dr Deibes said.
A spokesperson for the Israeli Civil Administration said several thousand local Christians will be issued special one-month travel permits for the Christmas season beginning on 19 December, allowing them to travel through a checkpoint into and out of Bethlehem to visit friends and family in other cities.
The spokesperson said all requests for travel permits would be met, barring any security restrictions, including those for several hundred Christians from Gaza.
"We are not satisfied [with these assurances], but that is the way it is," said the deputy mayor of Bethlehem, George Saade, who is also a Christian.
Mr Saade noted that since the construction of the Israeli separation wall, the traditional greeting of the Latin, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Patriarchs by Bethlehem dignitaries at their respective Christmas processions, now takes place behind two nine-foot (2.7 metre) tall steel doors, out of sight of locals who come to watch the ceremony. According to a multi-faith agreement called Status Quo, it takes place in front of Rachel's Tomb.
Rachel's Tomb is considered holy by both Muslims and Jews and during an uprising by Palestinians called the intifada, Israel constructed fortress-like walls around the site to protect Jews coming to worship there, effectively dividing the main road leading into Bethlehem.
Another steel gate — part of the Israeli separation barrier — is located at the entrance of the road and must also be opened to permit the processions to enter Bethlehem.
Said Samir Hazboun, chairperson of the board of the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce, 10,000 pilgrims and tourists are expected to come through Bethlehem for the Christmas holiday and for the week of December 20-26. Area hotels are reporting a full occupancy rate for the 2,750 rooms available in the area.
"We are seeing this as good news for the region," Mr Hazboun told ENInews, noting that five new hotels were in various stages of construction.
Though tourists are returning to Bethlehem and pilgrims are once more seen filling the grotto of the Church of the Nativity, Shadi Abu Aita, who opened his souvenir shop eight months ago a few hundred metres from the Israeli checkpoint, noted that the world economy has taken its toll on their purchasing power.
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Communion of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]