Barriers to Bethlehem Discourage Christian Pilgrims

Christian pilgrims to the biblical city of Bethlehem continue to decline in numbers due to longer waits at checkpoints, reports say.

Tourist coaches have been delayed at new border terminals for as long as two hours since the completion of Israel's new wall between Bethlehem and Jerusalem in November.

Visitors are now required to step out of the buses and pass through metal barriers and turnstiles to be searched and have their passport checked, whereas tourist coaches before could easily pass in a few minutes.

A spokesman with the Israeli police announced to the press that no complaints from foreign tourists have been filed so far, and that the added security was meant to prevent terrorist attacks.

"We respect the festivals and Christmas and we are happy to let tourists come in, but unfortunately because of the security situation we have to take security precautions," he said.

Palestinians residing in the city expressed a different view, citing newly erected barriers that have blocked off access to holy sites including the Church of the Nativity and Rachel's Tomb.

"Before, the soldiers would get on the bus and check who they were and that was it," said Johnny Kattan, a manager of the Jacir Palace hotel, to the Sydney Morning Herald. "Now the guests complain that it takes a lot of time and it's humiliating. And now, some guests don't want to come to Bethlehem any more."

In a letter of appeal, obtained by AsiaNews, Bethlehem residents condemned the closure of the traditional route to reach the Church of the Nativity and the opening of new checkpoints.

In the past, the Israeli government often left their checkpoints opened for a few hours on Latin, Orthodox and Coptic Christmas events to allow religious processions to reach the church located in Manger Square, starting from the patriarchates in East Jerusalem.

According to some Palestinian residents, the effect that increased security at the checkpoints has on the Christian tourism industry has proven devastating.

"We find ourselves fighting losing battles," said Carol Dabdoub from Open Bethlehem to the Herald. "We are no longer even fighting to get Palestinians through checkpoints any more. We are fighting just to get tourists through, because they are our life blood."

With the present political turmoil, and Palestinian terrorist attacks in the region, Israeli authorities have increasingly tightened security over the last few years. Residents, Muslim or Christian, are required to have hard-to-obtain permits in order to leave the city.

The recent restriction on tourism, however, is a new development in the area.

Though the number of visitors has increased starting from 8,000 in 2002, the number is still significantly smaller than the peak 840,000 in 2000. In the last eight months leading to August, only 162,000 visitors were able to visit the ancient city.