A major ecumenical charity is warning about the harmful impact COVID-19 policies are having on tourism to the birthplace of Jesus.
The U.K.-based Friends of the Holy Land, which supports Christian families that live in the region, said the pandemic is causing hard times for Bethlehem.
"[F]ar from there being no room at the inn, coronavirus has devastated livelihoods as bustling pilgrim hotspots are abandoned," the charity said in a recent update on its efforts helping Christians in need.
The Church of the Nativity and Manger Square are but two popular sites in the ancient land where approximately 1 million pilgrims and foreign tourists come during the Christmas season. Due to the travel and other related virus restrictions, this year the number is zero.
"It's a disaster for the people who live there — a massive 80% of them rely on tourism for their income and have now been without any income since March," the charity noted. "Many are Christian families."
Friends of the Holy Land CEO Brendan Metcalfe added, "Nobody could have predicted the 2020 pandemic, or that this total collapse of tourism would last so long.
"The whole of the Holy Land is now suffering from a lack of visitors that is set to continue deep into 2021.”
Because of the high numbers of tourists annually, the tourism business seems like a stable means of income for many families, he noted.
"Bethlehem churches who have also helped so far, are now running out of funds, and there is nothing forthcoming from the Palestinian Authority. There is no furlough scheme or other form of safety net, so people really need the aid we can give," Metcalfe said.
The charity is now raising funds for the increasing number of families facing dire financial straits. Layoffs are expected across several sectors due to the crisis.
“We want to supply more emergency food and pay off urgent medical or utility bills that are plunging vulnerable families into debt. We think Bethlehem, of all places, should be able to enjoy Christmas,” Metcalfe said.
Friends of the Holy Land is a non-political Christian charity with the mission "to secure a resilient and enduring Christian community in the West Bank, Gaza, Israel and Jordan — the part of the world that Christians call the Holy Land," according to its website, by providing practical help directly to the neediest and vulnerable Christian families. The charity supports Middle Eastern Christians from all denominations and is backed by church leaders in England, Wales and Scotland.