Manger Square, next to the Church of the Nativity, in Jesus’ native town, Bethlehem, deserted under lockdown.  (ANSA)

By Robin Gomes

Dec 21 2020

Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem have been heavily scaled down because of the soaring Covid-19 infection rate. The local economy is severely hit. In a Christmas message, the Patriarchs and Heads of Churches of Jerusalem urge people not to lose hope as Emmanuel, ‘God is with us”.

The celebration of the birth of Jesus “constantly remind us that God is with us and always will be”. “This transcendent and most holy gift to the world is our salvation and our hope that we are not alone” in the difficult time that the world is passing through. 

This is what the Patriarchs and Heads of Churches of Jerusalem say in their Christmas message released on Friday. 

Emmanuel—‘God is with us.’

Sharing their reflections on the Nativity, they say that God continues to be Emmanuel—‘God is with us.’ “God’s presence with us in all circumstances,” they say, “is a source of encouragement and sustenance, especially at these exceptional times of the Covid-19 pandemic, economic crisis, injustices, and increasing violence against the vulnerable and weak,”

The Church leaders express their “solidarity with all people around the world who have been affected by the pandemic and its multi-layered implications, particularly the people of Bethlehem and the surrounding area.”  They hope and pray that the “forthcoming vaccination against Covid-19 may bring an end to the pandemic and a return to normalcy”.

Reason for hope

If our times are difficult, the Heads of the Churches and Christian communities of Jerusalem argue, the time of the birth of Jesus was not any different.  “Jesus was born in a time of distress, violence, exclusion, and poverty.  He has shared with us the human flesh and its limitations, except sin, so that through His passion, death and resurrection, we all may have life and have it in abundance. God’s gift to us at these difficult times brings to the whole creation hope, renewal, and encouragement—for if God is with us, then who is against us.”

The Church leaders also refer to the December 4 arson attack in Basilica of the Agony in Jerusalem, saying the incident will not discourage them from continuing in their peaceful Christian mission and witness.  “The presence of the Christian communities, together with other faith communities in the Holy Land,” they say, “continues to be an essential part of the social, cultural, and religious mosaic of the Middle East.” 

Gloomiest year for Bethlehem

With Bethlehem under lockdown, this year’s festive period may be the gloomiest ever celebrated in the West Bank town. Mayor Anton Salman of Bethlehem on Thursday said Christmas celebrations such as the entry of the Latin Patriarch in the Church of the Nativity and the traditional midnight Mass will be limited to just a handful of people this year. Palestinian officials have announced a strict new lockdown across the West Bank due to high Covid-19 infection rates. The traditional celebrations will be streamed live for the faithful. 

Palestinian officials on Thursday reported 1,857 new cases of the coronavirus, bringing the total number of infections in Palestinian areas of the West Bank to 86,594. Over 860 Palestinians in the territory have died.

Economic hardships

Thousands of pilgrims and tourists typically visit Bethlehem and fill hotels over the Christmas season, bringing the area a much-needed economic boost. 2018 and 2019 were record years but this year is a different story with no pilgrims and tourists.

Elias al-Arja, chairman of the Arab Hotel Association, said he has been working in tourism for 30 years and this was the worst year he could remember.  In a webinar, Wadei Abunassar, chairman of the media committee of the Assembly of Catholic Bishops of the Holy Land said that Bethlehem had been severely affected by the pandemic in a number of different ways. He said unemployment has shot up in Bethlehem, where 70 percent of Christians rely on tourism for their income.  Donations are down and whereas the churches used to provide medicine for the local population, today the priority is to provide food, al-Arja said. – Vatican News