Christmas Tourism Lags in Bethlehem

There are more decorations in Bethlehem than in past years, but the residents say little has changed. Tourists, the backbone of the local economy, are still afraid to visit.

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The West Bank town of Bethlehem is preparing for Christmas, but the mayor says he expects few tourists this year in the traditional birthplace of Jesus. And the mood among many is grim.

NPR's Linda Gradstein reports from Bethlehem.

(Soundbite of singing)

LINDA GRADSTEIN: About two dozen Franciscan monks carrying candles sing mass in Latin in the grotto inside the Church of the Nativity that Christians believe was the birthplace of Christ. On this afternoon, just days before Christmas, the church is almost empty.

There are more decorations in Bethlehem than in previous years. Strings of colored lights swing across the streets near Manger Square, and Christmas trees grace most store fronts. The Islamist movement Hamas, which controls the Palestinian government, announced it would donate $50,000 for Christmas decorations in Bethlehem this year, but Christian Mayor Victor Batarsa says he hasn't seen any of the money. Instead, he says, local residents have donated the decorations.

Mayor VICTOR BATARSA (Bethlehem): And this gives some joy to the children and the citizens of Bethlehem. At least one thing to enjoy is seeing the streets lighted at night and decorated. This will give the spirit of Christmas to the citizens of Bethlehem, both Christians and Muslims.

GRADSTEIN: In fact, only one-third of Bethlehem's residents today are Christians. Over the past few years, tens of thousands have emigrated.

Maha al-Bundek(ph), a receptionist at Bethlehem's Tourist Center, says she recently returned from 13 years in Chile with her family. But she says she's thinking of leaving again in search of a better future for her children. She says the mood in the town is grim.

Mr. MAHA AL-BUNDEK (Receptionist, Bethlehem Tourist Center): I think everybody is sad. All the people are sad, maybe for death, maybe for this economic situation. The people doesn't have work, no money. I think the people are sad a little bit.

GRADSTEIN: Shopkeepers in the town say there almost no tourists around and the hotels are empty. In the year 2000, when the Pope visited Bethlehem, there were 1.25 million tourists here. Last year, says the mayor, just 20,000 came. And this year it will probably be only a few thousand. Those who do come will have to cross the controversial barrier Israel is building in and around the West Bank.

The barrier, which here is a tall, gray concrete wall, cuts the town off from Jerusalem, just a few miles to the north. It also separates hundreds of families who live in the town from their land outside.

Maxim Sansour of Open Bethlehem, a group that tries to increase world awareness of Bethlehem's difficult situation, says the barrier is ruining life here.

Mr. MAXIM SANSOUR (Open Bethlehem): The city of Bethlehem is soon going to be a ghetto, a walled-in ghetto. We're actually going to have through that wall, through that system of closure, we're actually going to have just two exits to the world. We're going to be completely isolated from the world. We're going to be walled in from the world.

GRADSTEIN: Israel will continue to control the exits, meaning Palestinians can only enter or leave the town with Israeli permission. In his traditional Christmas message, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem called Bethlehem a city of conflict and death.

But for the tourists who are making the pilgrimage this year, Bethlehem still has a special appeal. Laurie Wood came here from Vancouver, Washington.

Ms. LAURIE WOOD (Tourist): I believe that at home washing my dishes I'm as close to Jesus as I am here, although there is a kind of thrill, some kind of thrill of thinking that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.

GRADSTEIN: Mayor Batarseh says he still has hope for the future of his town. He invites Christians from all over the world to come to Bethlehem.

Mayor BATARSEH: We hope that the star of Bethlehem that has sent a message of love and peace to all the world will get this love and peace to the cities (unintelligible).

GRADSTEIN: Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Bethlehem.

(Soundbite of singing)

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