Bethlehem Still the Center of Christian Spirituality, Says Minister

People in the West Bank may be suffering but Christmas remains a time of joy and celebration for Christians in and around Bethlehem, says one leader.

According to Ecumenical News International, Minister for Tourism Khouloud Deibes said the birthplace of Jesus remained the center of Christian spirituality in spite of the difficulties caused by the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

The town's antiquities attract millions of tourists and pilgrims each year but for Christians living in the region they are places of daily spiritual significance, especially at Christmas.

"Christmas is a source of joy and pride for us Palestinians because here it happened … Here we have the time also to celebrate our churches; they are living monuments, not museums," said Deibes.

Christmas, she added, provides an opportunity to highlight the negative impact of the conflict on the Christian presence in the Holy Land.

The separation wall and lengthy queues at checkpoints mean that Christians can only travel through the region to visit friends and families with great difficulty.

This year, several thousand local Christians were expected to receive special one-month travel permits for the Christmas season, including the Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian celebrations.

Deibes said, "We are still under occupation, people are still suffering. Christmas is a good occasion to show how the political situation is negatively impacting the Christian presence in the Holy Land."

Vendors and shop owners in Bethlehem are reporting a boost in business after years of uncertainty and hardship during the intifada, with twelve new shops opening up close to Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity in the last 12 months.

Tourism, which has risen 60 per cent on last year's figures, remains vital to the local economy. According to Bloomberg, the Tourism Ministry estimates that as much as 15 per cent of the Palestinians' gross domestic product has come from the industry this year.

Spokesman for the Palestinian Authority Ghassan Khatib was quoted by Bloomberg as saying: "Bethlehem has a huge weight, culturally and religiously, and this is why it is an area receiving great attention from the Palestinian Authority.

"Tourism is one of the main sources of income for the future Palestinian state and for Palestinians now, and we are doing our best to utilize this opportunity."