Christian pilgrimage sites in the Holy Land, including sites in Jesus’ birthplace of Bethlehem, will be inaccessible to foreign Christian travelers again this Christmas due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the recent surge in the omicron variant.
The Israeli government has been accused of discriminating against Christian tourists during the busy Christmas holiday season by shutting its border to foreigners but giving an exception to young Jews.
Israel has mostly restricted international tourists since March 2020, when many countries began implementing lockdown policies in response to the pandemic, and had only started admitting fully vaccinated foreign visitors in early November. With the emergence of the omicron variant, travel restrictions have been reimposed.
A ban on foreign travelers to Israel was again instituted at the end of last month for two weeks and was later extended. In addition to banning foreign travel, Israeli officials have also restricted residents from traveling to several foreign countries to curb the spread of omicron.
While Bethlehem lies in the Palestinian-controlled West Bank, the only way for most foreign pilgrims to access the town is by flying into Israel.
Bethlehem is a popular destination for tourists over the holiday as many Christian pilgrims visit the ancient site, notably Manger Square.
The now-crippled tourism industry in Bethlehem and other sites throughout the Holy Land have been devastated. This will mark the second consecutive year that foreigners will not be able to visit the region.
In mid-December, Israeli officials made an exception to the foreign travelers’ ban for young Jews worldwide who want to travel as part of an exception for “birthright.” But restrictions still remain in place for other foreigners, including Christian pilgrims who want to travel to historic towns roamed by Jesus during his earthly ministry. Those include Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth.
A spokesperson and adviser to churches in the Holy Land, Wadi Abunassar, took to social media to claim that various Christian denominations are not happy with what they view as discrimination against Christian pilgrims.
“Racist discrimination should never be accepted in any way!” he wrote in a Facebook post, as reported by The Associated Press. “I urge the Israeli authorities to treat all those who want to visit the country equally without any discrimination between religion.”
An official with the Catholic Church told the AP that the church has requested Israel’s Tourism Ministry make an exception for Christian pilgrims during the Christmas season.
The U.S.-based persecution watchdog group International Christian Concern said local hotel owners and employees in Bethlehem had been preparing for an influx of visitors — expecting to be filled at 70% capacity.
In 2013, the last year data was made available by the Palestinian Authority, approximately 1.16 million foreign tourists visited the area, according to ICC. The nonprofit further noted that while Israeli hotels and the tourism sector have received stipends from the government, those located in the Palestinian territories only received a one-time stipend of $224.
Over 4.5 million foreigners visited Israel in 2019, with Christian pilgrims accounting for roughly 25% of that total.
In 2020, the number of foreign visitors to Israel dropped to fewer than 1 million when both Israel and the Palestinian territories saw high infection rates. Foreign visitors were mostly barred last Christmas.
According to The New York Times, there had been hopes this year that up to 15,000 pilgrims would visit the region for Christmas despite travel complications and other virus-related challenges.
“For people in Bethlehem, that would have been important oxygen,” Abunassr told the newspaper. “The community is suffering.”
The Church of the Nativity, one of the most famous sites in Bethlehem, has been undergoing significant repairs, renovations that are expected to continue.
Such restoration projects are being helped along with contributions from Americans. The restoration work on the church so far has cost at least $15 million, of which the American Friends of the Bethlehem Foundation and Bethlehem Development Foundation raised at least $2.6 million, split equally.
The ancient church was named a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site in 2012. It was previously listed on the UNESCO List of World Heritage in Danger due to a “poor state of conservation” before its removal in 2019.