Bethlehem welcomes Christmas without foreign tourists, pilgrims
Palestinian tourists and pilgrims on Friday gathered at the square near the Church of Nativity in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, marking the start of Christmas celebrations in an atmosphere of joy and bliss.
Hundreds of local merrymakers, including tourists and pilgrims, flocked to the famous Manger Square, where a giant Christmas tree was put up, taking selfie photos next to it.
Some of the women wore traditional Palestinian garments, while the children wore new dresses. The red color, which is the color of the Santa Claus' suit, dominated the scene at the square.
But the joy of Christmas was incomplete due to the absence of foreign tourists and pilgrims who couldn't visit the city because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to official figures, more than three million and a half foreign tourists visited the Palestinian territories in 2019 and most of them visited Bethlehem, a city that holds great significance in Christian history. However, since March 2020, the influx of foreign tourists has dwindled to almost zero.
During ceremonial activities around the Church of Nativity, Ibrahim Faltas, a Christian priest, told Xinhua that this year's Christmas is difficult for all the Palestinians as the tourist industry has taken a heavy blow, forcing more people out of jobs.
"But we must arm ourselves with hope despite all the difficulties, and we pray that this cloud will be removed from the entire world and the coming year will be better, in which peace and freedom prevail," he said.
Palestinian Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Rula Maayah told Xinhua that this year's Christmas in Bethlehem had many festive activities and events, unlike last year, which witnessed a complete closure.
"This year's celebrations are without foreign tourism in light of the spread of the new variant of the coronavirus Omicron," she said, adding that domestic tourism is active, as good numbers flocked to Bethlehem.
"Christmas brings with it the joy and hopes that the Palestinian people believe in," said the Palestinian official.
Julia, a Palestinian girl wearing a red Santa Claus hat heading to the Manger Square, told Xinhua that she was happy to celebrate Christmas.
"I hope that a bigger celebration will come next year when peace prevails in the Palestinian territories," the little girl said.
Um Yousef, a Muslim Palestinian woman, who brought her children to celebrate the festival on the street, said: "we Muslims and Christians in Bethlehem live in brotherhood and celebrate this holiday together without regard to religion."