Occupation and Covid: A Strange Christmas in Bethlehem

Guest blog by our friends at Churches for Middle East Peace, originally published here.

Bethlehem, considered the cradle of Christianity, is perhaps one of Earth’s most special places to embrace the Christmas spirit. Located in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, it’s the “little town” where Jesus was born, and it attracts thousands of pilgrims at Christmas. 

Christians have flocked to Bethlehem for centuries to celebrate the Christmas season, and each year the city hosts approximately one million tourists. 

A Sacred City for Three Religions

Bethlehem is the site of the Church of the Nativity, an underground cave where Christians believe Mary gave birth to Jesus. A 14-pointed silver star beneath an altar that the emperor Constantine the Great and his mother Helena had built around the year 338 marks the spot, and the stone church is a key pilgrimage site for Christians and Muslims alike.

Built sometime in the fourth century, the church has undergone several makeovers due to natural and human-made disasters. It is now administered jointly by the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Armenian Apostolic authorities. A space reserved for Muslim prayer has been set aside in a southern wing.  

Christmas in Bethlehem

Adjoining the Church of the Nativity is the Franciscan Church of Saint Catherine, the site where Christmas Mass is celebrated each year at midnight.

In early December, a tall Christmas tree is put up outside the church in Manger Square, signaling the festivities’ beginning. 

On Christmas Day, thousands of tourists and Palestinians—Muslims and Christians alike—line the road, dubbed the pilgrimage route, and watch a procession led by the Catholic patriarch who begins in Jerusalem and passes through the wall separating the West Bank from Israel. Scout marching bands escort the cleric with drums and bagpipes. 

Historical documentation reports that Christmas was celebrated on December 25 as early as the third century in the Western Church; however, the Orthodox and Armenian churches celebrated their holiday on January 6, known as Epiphany (or Theophany), the visit of the Wise Men.  Today, Orthodox and Armenian churches continue the tradition and celebrate Christmas in various parts of the city.

Christmas in Bethlehem Looks Different in 2020

Like just about everything else, the COVID-19 pandemic will curtail the Christmas festivities in the Holy City. The Palestinian Health Ministry has recommended strict restrictions, including limiting the number of people allowed to attend Christmas Eve services and restaurant closings at 9:00 PM. 

The Church of the Nativity and Manger Square, two landmarks typically filled with throngs of visitors seeking a spiritual holiday experience, will be mostly quiet, devastating the local economy, which relies heavily on tourism for its income. Cancellations and the scaled-back celebrations will deal another blow to an economy that has already been hit hard by the coronavirus crisis this year. As a result, experts are projecting financial hardship for many in the region.

The West Bank is amid a spike in coronavirus cases. The northern Israeli town of Nazareth, revered by Christians as the place of Jesus’ childhood, has been designated a “restricted” zone by authorities, limiting movement in and out of the area for at least the next few days.

Yet despite these challenging times, we will sing with even more conviction this year about that Little Town in Bethlehem and how “the hopes and fears of all the years” especially, it seems this year, were met that night long ago when Immanuel, God with Us, was born. We invite and encourage you to join our efforts to bring peace and justice to the Middle East. We wish you a joyous Christmas!

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