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Bethlehem (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) – With a giant evergreen tree, colorful balloons in the streets and selfies in the Church of the Nativity, Christmas tourism has returned to Bethlehem after two years of Covid-related restrictions.
The city of Bethlehem, venerated in Christian tradition as the birthplace of Christ, welcomes thousands of pilgrims and tourists each year for Christmas, a boon that has dried up over the past two years due to the coronavirus pandemic and travel restrictions.
With restrictions lifted in the Palestinian Territories and Israel, home to the nearest international airport with access to Bethlehem, the southern West Bank city has taken on a festive atmosphere.
Boy Scouts marched with bagpipes while thousands of onlookers who lined the streets held balloons and cotton candy.
The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, greeted the faithful upon his arrival in the city before leading the annual Christmas Eve procession at the Church of the Nativity.
“Christmas is the celebration of the city and we have put a lot of time and effort into preparing for it,” Bethlehem Mayor Hanna Hanania told AFP.
“We wanted to have an international participation and organized children’s songs and shows with singers from France, South Africa and Malta,” he added.
Tourists flocked to the streets, shops and stone buildings of this Palestinian city where Christians and Muslims live side by side.
It was “wonderful to be here,” said Paul Wittenberger, a 40-year-old American from Michigan who was visiting with his father and siblings.
“We’ve been here for three days and the weather is nice, we’re lucky to be here outside of the storm” that swept through the United States this weekend, he said.
Just “hanging out” in Bethlehem was meaningful to John Hughes.
“It’s a pretty cool city,” the 22-year-old Canadian from Vancouver told AFP.
For him the birthplace of Christ was a “significant place – especially at Christmas”.
Michael al-Siriani, owner of a pottery and ceramics workshop, welcomed the return of tourists to the city after two difficult years in which local hotels stood empty.
“Things are much better now after the coronavirus pandemic,” he said. “Besides, tourists are sleeping in the city again.”
The Palestinian Authority, which governs the Israeli-occupied West Bank, confirmed Siriani’s sentiments.
“Since the beginning of this year, since March to be precise, we have been receiving pilgrims and tourists from all over the world,” Palestinian Tourism Minister Rola Maayah told AFP.
“So far we have received about 700,000 tourists from all over the world,” she said.
Meanwhile, on Saturday, pilgrims at the Church of the Nativity were deep in prayer, while others took selfies wearing red and white Santa hats hours ahead of the traditional midnight mass and their wishes for peace.
© 2022 AFP