Amid joy as Bethlehem reopens, Christians have uncertainty about future

Sister Victoria from Iraq greets a child before Mass in St. Catherine Church in Bethlehem, West Bank, May 26, 2020, the day the church reopened after being closed during the COVID-19 pandemic. (CNS photo/Debbie Hill) 

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (CNS) -- Bethlehem residents returned to the Church of the Nativity as the holy site opened to visitors May 26 after being closed since March because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But amid the joy was a feeling of uncertainty about their economic future, as pilgrims and tourists are not yet able to return.

In the creche where Christians venerate as the traditional site of Jesus' birth, local Syriac Catholic tour guide Rizek Nazi was filming a video on his cellphone with his two sons, George, 10, and Aram, 9, to give pilgrims a virtual tour of the place as it opened, and to entice them to plan a visit once international travel reopens.

The sole breadwinner for his family, Nazi has not worked since March 7.

"I want people to keep the idea of coming on pilgrimage to Bethlehem in the back of their minds for when they can travel," he said.

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In his videos, he emphasized the safety and health precautions being taken in Bethlehem.

"As Palestinians, we know to always try to keep some savings for the dark days, but now all that is gone," he added.

Samir Hazboun, chairman of the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce, noted that unemployment was 95% in the tourism sector of what he called the "Christian triangle" of Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Beit Sahour.

"The Christian triangle ... depends on tourism and handicrafts related to tourism. Whenever we look at tourism (now) around the world, we can see how difficult it is," he said. Though the spring and summer months are generally low season for the area, residents are still unsure when and how many visitors will return in the ensuing season, he added.

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"All the hotels and restaurants are closed, bus drivers are out of work, people working in the handicraft industry producing religious articles have been heavily affected. We are trying to develop a plan," he said.

At the moment, even mail orders for the various cooperatives and fair trade workshops are not an option, because international shipping is not yet possible, he said.

"The social impact of the economic crisis on the Christian Palestinian community (will be serious.) The Christians will be heavily affected, as their income is mainly related to the tourism and service sector," said Hazboun.

Unemployment in all the Palestinian areas has doubled from the 22% pre-pandemic level, he said.

Saliba Bandak, who is Greek Orthodox, sat idly chatting with two friends, currently unemployed as tour guides. His souvenir shop normally supports his family of seven, which includes his parents and siblings.

"Without tourists, we have nothing," Bandak said. "Since the beginning of March, we have not had any income. But we are Palestinian and we keep God as our hope."

Father Rami Asakrieh of St. Catherine Parish said almost 450 families from his parish depend solely on the tourism sector for their income, and the parish council has been trying to organize special help for them.

He said Israel, which is also slowly opening up its economy, has not yet given entry permission to all the Palestinians who worked in the construction industry to return to work in Israel.

"People who had money have gone through their savings and now need to pay their outstanding checks and loans," he said.

While the Israeli government has been able to provide grants to its residents, the Palestinian government has not been able to do so, he added.

Through the Pontifical Mission, the St. Catherine parish council has been able to provide 150 families with vouchers for groceries, but now many more families than before need help to meet their basic needs, Father Asakrieh said. The usual partner organizations that help them are also feeling the crunch because their own donors are unable to contribute more, he said, so they are hoping individuals who visit the Bethlehem parish website will consider donating.

In Jerusalem May 25, sections of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher were opened to visitors who are required to wear masks and use hand sanitizer before they enter. Though the Israeli government allowed businesses and stores to reopen, souvenir shop owners in the Old City who depend on tourism have been left with no form of income. The Knights of the Holy Sepulchre launched a support fund for needy Christian families and Latin Patriarchate schools in Palestine and Jordan who have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

In Bethlehem, Father Emad Kamal of St. Catherine Parish welcomed parishioners filling the pews May 26 to recite the rosary and then celebrate the first communal Mass since March.

"I feel so happy today. When the church was closed we prayed on the phone, but it is a different feeling to pray together," said Eliana Alaly, who came to church with her three children, carrying a packet of disposable masks and wearing latex gloves. She was one of the few people who wore a mask. "We are still a bit afraid."

Before going to Mass at St. Catherine's, Naheeda Thaljieh lit a candle in the adjacent Church of the Nativity.

"When I entered the church, I just cried and cried and cried," she said. Her family depends on the income from a small grocery store but there have been few customers, she said. "After 80-plus days, I entered the church and I lit candles for all the people and that all the people who are sick in the world will get well."

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