Bethlehem Christmas Hurt by Lack of Tourists

Correction appended

Christian leaders and local authorities have expressed concern about the impact that low number of tourists will have on the already hard-pressed Bethlehem residents.

A controversial 400-mile-plus barrier with nearly 26-foot-high wall portions now divides Palestinian residents in the West Bank from residents in Israeli-controlled Jerusalem. Bethlehem is in the West Bank area and the wall has made it difficult for tourists to enter.

Geoff Tunnicliffe, the chief executive officer of the World Evangelical Alliance, said a year ago some 200 buses transport tourists a day. But now there are only five tourists buses a day.

“Many of the Christians are dependent upon the tourist trade,” Tunnicliffe noted to Mission Network News on Thursday. “Because of the economics, because of the stress they’re under, many Christians have had to leave the area.”

Israel built the wall saying it is necessary to stop Palestinian attacks into Israel. In recent years several Palestinian suicide bombers from Bethlehem have blown themselves up in Jerusalem. Foreign passport holders can cross freely in both directions, but most Palestinians and Israelis cannot.

On Friday, Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan Williams accompanied by a delegation of U.K. church leaders visited the Israel-Palestinian territory wall.

Williams, who serves as spiritual leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion, and the delegation said the presence of the delegation was “here to say to the people of Bethlehem that they are not forgotten,” according to Open Bethlehem.

“We are here to say: what affects you affects us. We are here to say, your suffering is our suffering too, in prayers and in thought and in hope,” said the archbishop.

Bethlehem’s mayor said the closure of Jerusalem to Palestinians and the limitation of permits to cross into the city have led to a 65 percent unemployment rate, The Associated Press reported earlier this month.

The delegates began their visit on Wednesday and are scheduled to return on Saturday.

Former president Jimmy Carter also voiced concerns about Israel’s current policies in the Palestinian territories in his recently released controversial book entitled, “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.” The former president discussed both obstacles and requirements for peace in the region. Carter’s book drew criticism from some Jewish communities and resulted in the resignation of a high-level colleague at the Carter Center after the book was released.

Correction: Friday, December 22, 2006:

An article on Friday, December 22, 2006, about the decline of Christmas tourism to Bethlehem this year incorrectly reported that Bethlehem has a 65 percent employment rate. Bethlehem has a 65 percent unemployment rate.