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A COVID Christmas comes to Bethlehem

The coronavirus pandemic has put a damper on Christmas at the place where it is said to have all begun.

By Adam Rasgon
Published: Dec 25, 2020

A COVID Christmas comes to BethlehemDecorations hang from a modest wire tree at Lorette Zoughbi's home — she and her husband have a full-size one they decided not to bother putting up this Christmas — in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, Dec. 18, 2020. Every Christmas, Bethlehem becomes a bustling hub for pilgrims, tourists and dignitaries. Not this year. (Samar Hazboun/The New York Times)

(Bethlehem Dispatch)

BETHLEHEM, West Bank — The Church of the Nativity was closed, and most souvenir shops shuttered. Hotels that are usually sold out months in advance were deserted.

Among the few signs of life on the main street in Bethlehem’s Old City last Friday were the chirping of a few birds and stray cats scavenging an overflowing garbage can.

Earlier in the month, only a few people attended the tree-lighting ceremony in Manger Square, an event that usually heralds the metamorphosis of the quiet West Bank town of Bethlehem into one of the main seasonal attractions of international Christendom.

The coronavirus pandemic has put a damper on Christmas at the place where it is said to have all begun.

“Great sadness,” Father Ibrahim Shomali, the chancellor of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, said of this year’s celebrations. “We are very frustrated, but what can we do? We need to accept the reality and do the right thing.”

Midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity is usually one of the social events of the year on the occupied West Bank. The ancient limestone church takes on the atmosphere of a glittering movie premiere as diplomats and Palestinian officials emerge from motorcades of shiny BMWs and Mercedes in tailored suits and elegant dresses.

This year, the ceremony will be limited to church officials, a handful of European diplomats and Bethlehem’s mayor. The Palestinian Authority imposed tough antivirus restrictions on Bethlehem on Dec. 10, setting up checkpoints around its perimeter, ordering the closing of restaurants, cafes, schools and gyms, and forbidding nearly all large gatherings.

Bethlehem has about 1,000 confirmed, active cases of COVID-19, according to official data, although the true number is thought to be much higher. All intensive care beds at hospitals are occupied, the Health Ministry said.

During a recent visit, the expansive lobby of the 222-room Bethlehem Hotel was silent. The leather couches and chairs were empty, the lights and heating were turned off, and a fine coating of dust was collecting on coffee tables.

“There’s usually nowhere to sit during this time of year,” said Elias al-Arja, the hotel owner, wearing a winter coat and a large black mask. “It ordinarily gets so crowded that there’s little room to move.”

Since March, when authorities discovered the first cases of the virus in the Bethlehem area, al-Arja said, the hotel has struggled to pay its debts. He had to lay off all but two of his 80 employees. He said he has sold his second home in Ramallah and a plot of land in Jericho to pay off debts.

“It’s been devastating,” he said.Until the pandemic, the tourism industry in the West Bank, which relies heavily on the Christmastime business in Bethlehem, was anticipating its best year in two decades. The West Bank had more than 3 million visitors last year, tourism officials said.

And despite competition from Israeli tour providers and the challenges of doing business under occupation, Palestinian travel and tourism companies were hiring, offering new itineraries and predicting continued growth for 2020.

“We went from our highest to lowest point,” said Tony Khashram, the head of the Holy Land Incoming Tour Operators Association. “Everything fell apart in the snap of a finger.”

Tens of thousands of people in the tourism industry — including tour guides, tour operators, souvenir shop owners, and restaurant and hotel workers — have lost their jobs, the Tourism Ministry estimates. Tour operators are struggling to pay off debts and to collect hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments due from partners abroad.

Retailers, too, have been devastated. The few merchants who opened their shops said the absence of tourists this year has sharpened their feelings of exasperation over the pandemic’s economic fallout.

“The whole world came during Christmas last year,” said Sami Khamis, whose hole-in-the-wall tea shop near Manger Square offers a specialty tea with whole pieces of fresh sage, ginger, mint, rosemary and cinnamon. “But I’m now hardly making enough money to put food on the table. This is a disastrous situation.”

The seven or eight nearby souvenir shops — which usually do a brisk trade in kaffiyehs, baby Jesus dolls on beds of straw, and olivewood crosses embedded with a vial of soil from the Mount of Olives — were all closed.

In his office overlooking the Church of the Nativity, Mayor Anton Salman said he was sad that Bethlehem would not celebrate Christmas as it normally does, but he emphasized that public health was paramount. He contracted the virus last month.

“We’ve experienced difficult circumstances during Christmas in the past,” he said, alluding to previous violent conflicts with Israel. “But the pandemic is something quite different — there are so many unknowns.”

He said the city would not abandon its traditions, just scale them down.

The Christmas Market in Manger Square, he said, was held for a single day, on Sunday, instead of the usual two. The audience for the annual scouts parade, in which dozens of boys and girls march through Bethlehem on Christmas Eve playing Palestinian anthems and Christmas songs, will be limited to local residents.

“We don’t feel like Christmas is happening,” said Lorette Zoughbi, 66, who watched the tree-lighting on television although it took place just up the street from her apartment. “There’s no special atmosphere. These days feel like any other days that come and go.”

Bethlehem’s Christians, who are mostly Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox, were once the majority. But the Christian population has dwindled through emigration while the Muslim population has grown. Now Bethlehem, like all Palestinian cities in the West Bank, is predominantly Muslim.

Zoughbi, a member of a prominent Christian family in Bethlehem, has felt so bereft of Christmas spirit that she and her husband did not even bother to pull their full-sized tree out of storage. Instead, they stuck a small metal one in a corner of their apartment.

For many Palestinian Christians, the worst part of this Christmas season is having to cancel extended-family gatherings.

Zoughbi’s clan usually gathers for a dinner of qidreh, a rice and lamb dish, at a large restaurant with 150 of her relatives, often followed by an evening of drumming and singing Arabic Christmas songs.

“These are some of the only times we all come together,” she said.

Nihaya Musleh, a resident of Beit Sahour, immediately east of Bethlehem, said she had planned to host Harumiya, a local tradition in which men — or, as in her case, the family matriarch — invite their married daughters and sisters home for a special meal 40 days before Christmas.

Musleh said she and her son had invited 28 family members to her home for a luncheon, promising to enforce social distancing.

But after she spent two days cooking, Musleh said, her daughter-in-law tested positive for the virus, so she called it off.

“I would be lying if I told you I wasn’t unhappy about missing out on Harumiya,” she said. “But I’m glad we found out about the positive test the day before — it was a gift from God.”

©2019 New York Times News Service