BETHLEHEM, West Bank ( Associated Press) — The biblical city of Bethlehem is gearing up for its second straight Christmas Eve — with small crowds and gray, gloomy weather celebrations on Friday in the traditional birthplace of Jesus.
Israel’s ban on almost all incoming air traffic – the main entry point for foreign visitors into the occupied West Bank – kept international tourists away for the second year in a row. The ban is in place to slow the spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant, which has rocked Christmas celebrations around the world.
Instead, the local authorities were relying on the Holy Land’s small Christian community to lift the spirits.
Bethlehem’s mayor, Tony Salman, said the city was optimistic that 2021 would be better than last year’s Christmas, when local residents also stayed home due to lockdown restrictions. Bethlehem planned a return to its traditional marching band parades and street concerts.
Salman said, “Last year, our festival was virtual, but this year it will be one-on-one with one-on-one participation.”
Police put up barricades early Friday as scout bands drumming through Manger Square and holding flags ahead of the expected arrival from Jerusalem of Latin Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the top Roman Catholic priest in the Holy Land.
The pizzaballa was set to celebrate midnight mass at the nearby Church of the Nativity—the grotto where Christians believe Jesus was born.
Around 100 tourists, almost all of whom were Palestinians, gathered behind the barricades to celebrate the occasion.
Before the pandemic, Bethlehem would host thousands of Christian pilgrims from around the world, bringing a strong dose of holiday spirit to the city and a major blow to the local economy. The loss of international tourism has hit Bethlehem’s hotels, restaurants and gift shops especially hard.