Christmas in Bethlehem 'Sad' & 'Unusual' This Year

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:10 PM EDT

Bethlehem ( - The mood in Bethlehem, the city of Jesus' birth, was rather dreary and sad on Monday, Christmas Eve, despite a bright sunny sky and pleasant weather. Crushing unemployment, precipitated by a steep drop in tourism, has added to a feeling of despair in the city.

Bethlehem Mayor Hanna Nasser told in an interview on Monday that residents of the city were not happy, but nevertheless, would celebrate Christmas even without the tourists and pilgrims.

Adding to their frustration, local Palestinians were upset that their leader Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat had been banned by Israel from attending Christmas Eve services at the Church of the Nativity on Monday night.

Israel indicated that Arafat would only be allowed to attend the mass if he arrested the assassins of an Israeli minister, who are believed to be hiding out in a PA-controlled area.

Arafat, a practicing Muslim, has attended the traditional Christmas Eve services with his wife, a former Christian, since Bethlehem was turned over to the Palestinians in 1995.

Calling Israel's decision not to allow Arafat to attend "stupid," Nasser said that Israel was mixing things. But he added that even the Palestinians view Christmas as a religious as well as national holiday.

"This is a very unusual Christmas. I myself have never witnessed such an unusual Christmas," said Nasser. "I'm sorry to say that this is a sad one, really."

Nasser, himself a Catholic, is 65. Not only was he born in the town, but his family can trace its lineage in Bethlehem on a family tree to the year 1609. He blamed the recent Israeli incursion, constant closures on the city and rampant unemployment for the lack of Christmas spirit in his town.

"The people in general, they feel they are not happy," Nasser said.

Christmas in Bethlehem this year takes place against the backdrop of a 15-month old intifadah (uprising) and an Israeli incursion two months ago to rout Palestinian gunmen who were firing on a nearby Jewish neighborhood. Twenty-two Palestinians were killed and another 150 wounded in the nine-day incursion.

About 40 percent of Bethlehem's income comes from the tourism trade and related businesses. But with tourism virtually at zero, some 40-45 percent of the city is unemployed and has been for more than a year.

"The Americans surely don't come because there was an [advisory] from the State Department. The Europeans, they prefer to stay where they are," Nasser said. "Those who travel today it is because they are obliged to do it."

"I want to tell you very frankly that the Christians in the Holy Land, they feel that they are abandoned by the Christian world and we call upon them to take much more attention," he said.

"This city of Bethlehem does not belong really to the citizens that are living here. It belongs to the world ... We ask them not to think about Bethlehem only during the 24th and 25th [but] to think about Bethlehem all the year around," Nasser added.

"[Nevertheless], with all these ups and downs, with all these difficulties, we Christians will celebrate Christmas. We will celebrate it but on a lower profile than it has been before," he said.

By late morning the town's Manger Square was filling with people, but most were local young people milling about, not the traditional hoards of tourists. Six local choirs will sing on the square on Monday evening, instead of the many international choirs that used to offer their songs there.

Hundreds of uniformed Palestinian children and youth scouts marched through the streets in the traditional Christmas parade, blowing Christmas carols and other songs on bagpipes accompanied by hundreds of drums.

There were a few brave pilgrims from abroad, but not an American in sight.

"[We came] because it's a special day for Christians," said Eva, who was visiting in Bethlehem for Christmas from Warsaw, Poland, with her son, Jack, and husband, Andrew, a visiting professor in Jerusalem.

"We are not afraid," said Eva. "It seems rather peaceful and the people are very helpful, cheerful and offering to show the way, without wanting money in return," she said.

They were some of the few non-locals visiting the ancient Church of the Nativity, built over a network of caves, known as the grotto, traditionally the birthplace of Jesus Christ.

When she returns to Poland, Eva said, she will tell people, "to come and not to be afraid," that is if she makes it back safely, she added.

"I wasn't afraid [to come]," said Maureen from Australia. "I came to offer support to the people."

Maureen, who is currently volunteering at a Catholic institution in the Old City of Jerusalem, said she could see the pain and suffering on both the Palestinian and Israeli sides.

"The tragedy for them is the same," she said. "I don't see any solution while these two leaders are at the helm," she said of Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Ernesto and Piero, father and son from Milan, Italy, said they came to Bethlehem because of Christmas. Are they afraid?

"I am afraid there are no pilgrims!" said Piero.

"I like to tell [people] to come here because it's important," he said. "Many people say they would like to come but they are afraid, so they don't come.

"It's important to come [especially] now because of the situation. It's a small sign of the peace to come here," Piero added.

The local community was doing its best to rally for the day, obviously perturbed by the fact that Arafat was being barred from their city.

"Despite all these [hardships] we will do our best to pray and celebrate Christmas, and God willing we will see Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine," said 19-year-old Rana Ayyad, who lives in nearby Beit Sahour.

"We're not happy because there was an Israeli incursion and because Arafat can't come to visit in Bethlehem," said 15-year-old Merna, who said she and her three siblings would be celebrating Christmas in the church and at home.

"We are desperate," said Mary, 17, dressed in purple. It is terrible that Arafat can't come to celebrate, she added.

"[This Christmas] is mixed with pain," said Mr. Qumsieh, who was standing outside his father's empty King David souvenir shop. Business is "almost zero," he said with a pained smile.

"But we always have a hope. [The situation is] very bad. We don't have words to describe it. But we always have hope that it will be better. People can't live without hope. We have hope that our lives will be better living here for this purpose," he said.