Just a handful of Palestinians today gathered at the Manger Square in Bethlehem to mark the start of Christmas Eve as the coronavirus pandemic has put a damper on this year’s celebrations.
Unlike previous years when thousands of local faithful and tourists would gather outside the Church of the Nativity and dozens others would pack their balconies to watch the Christmas procession, only marching bands of the local scout groups were allowed for the parade that welcomed the Latin Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaballa.
Pizzaballa headed the annual procession from the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem and to Manger Square, passing as usual through a massive metal gate in the towering Israeli concrete wall that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem.
He was welcomed at Manger Square by a host of officials and clergy, who were wearing their face masks and maintained social distancing, ahead of the midnight mass at the Church of the Nativity, built over the grotto where Christian tradition says Jesus Christ was incarnated.
This year, the Christmas Eve Mass, seen as the most important annual event at the Nativity church, will be closed to the public as a strict general lockdown remains in place across the occupied territories to help rein in the pandemic outbreak. The mass will be streamlined live on TV, as it is the case every year.
As part of the lockdown measures, all restaurants, cafes, schools, hotels and stores are closed, except for pharmacies, bakeries and grocery stores, and all large gatherings are forbidden.
The city of Bethlehem recorded its first Covid-19 cases in early March. Numbers soon spiked to some 9,500 cases and 91 deaths, as announced by the Health Ministry.
Early on in the pandemic, Israel closed its borders to foreigners, effectively banning travel to the Palestinian territories. Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinians from other West Bank districts have not been able to visit Bethlehem for the Christmas season either.
Until the pandemic, the tourism industry in the city, which relies on Christmas time businesses, was anticipating its best year in two decades. However, the pandemic has forced hotels, souvenir shops and restaurants dotting the hometown of Jesus to shut down and lay off staff.
Christians from the besieged Gaza Strip generally receive special permits from the Israeli authorities to attend the Christmas celebrations, but this year those permits have not been issued.
Many Palestinian Christians are choosing to leave their homeland to escape the 63-years of Israeli occupation of the West Bank.
Living under military occupation, Palestinian Christians have been suffering as a result of Israel’s policies of land seizures (land grab), colonial settlement construction, movement restrictions and, for those living in Jerusalem, the revocation of residency identity cards.
The Church of the Nativity is administered by three churches, the Roman Catholic Church, the Greek Orthodox Church and the Armenian Church. The Orthodox and Oriental churches will celebrate the feast on December 25 according to the Julian Calendar, equivalent to January 7.