Christmas in Bethlehem is a study in opposites: security checkpoints manned by armed soldiers and threats of violence amid glowing, upbeat celebrations signaling the anniversary of the birth of Christ.
Thousands of Christian pilgrims from across the world converge on the city in the West Bank each year to participate in Christmas celebrations.
There are processions through the ancient city’s streets and performances in Manger Square, the focal point of the celebrations near the Church of the Nativity, one of Christianity’s most important sites, built over the cave where Jesus was born.
Taxis buzz through the streets. Holiday decorations adorn shops selling handmade crafts and souvenirs. Christmas lights line city streets. The Palestinian city’s roughly 4,000 hotel rooms—which sit vacant for most of the year—typically are booked well in advance, filled with visitors from across the globe. Check points are manned by Israeli soldiers.
This is Christmas in the Holy Land.
“It’s a very special occasion,” says Father Rick Van De Water, the Arabic chaplain at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Pomona who served at a parish pastor in Jifna, a Palestinian village north of Jerusalem. “There are people coming from all over the world.”
He said visiting Bethlehem during Christmas gave him a deeper and richer understanding of his own faith.
“It gave me insight into Christianity,” Father Rick says. “Here in America, we decorate our homes with a Christmas tree, but we don’t really understand that Jesus was born in a cave. When you go to the Nativity Church, under the steps where the altar is, you can see the cave. For all these years, visitors have been going there to experience that.”
Christmas celebrations in the Holy Land stretch into January and visitors take part in a variety of important religious traditions. For Catholics, that includes midnight Mass at the Church of St. Catherine, near the Nativity Church.
Although it’s a city steeped in religious and historical significance, it is also a place of deep tension. Bethlehem saw heavy combat during the second intifada.
Today, the city is lined by the “Bethlehem Separation Wall,” a 12-foot-high concrete security barrier separating the Palestinian city from Israel and making access more difficult for visitors because of guarded checkpoints. The lines can be hours long.
The checkpoint between Jerusalem and Bethlehem recently has seen an increase in public demonstrations, which have the potential to become violent, according to a recent travel warning issued by the U.S. State Department.
“It’s a tense situation,” Father Rick says. “Safety and security is a big issue.”
Bethlehem at one point was composed of about 90 percent Christian residents. Today that figure is about 30 percent. The city’s population is 22,000 and about 6,000 to 7,000 residents are Christians. There are three refugee camps in Bethlehem, inhabited by a large and growing number of Muslim refugees.
Although Bethlehem has been hit hard by regional conflict and tourists have stayed away in the past because of potential violence, renewed peace talks appear to be bringing visitors back.
Nearly 2.5 million tourists visited the West Bank in 2013, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism.
Along with promises of peace comes a new effort to rebuild portions of the West Bank hit hard by violence and poverty. U.S. officials last year committed $100 million to support infrastructure initiatives in the West Bank.
Among the initiatives is a project to improve three kilometers of roads in Bethlehem near Manger Square to promote economic development and tourism.
And the influx of foreign visitors can offer a financial boost to Bethlehem’s residents.
“For people who live in Bethlehem it’s a wonderful opportunity,” Father Rick says. “There are hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops. The people of Bethlehem are busy receiving visitors, but at the same time I think they’re very proud to be from the birthplace of Jesus.”
Visitors and residents from different Christian denominations come together to celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem. Services and celebrations are held for those of Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Protestant faiths.
Father Rick says being in the ancient city during one of Christianity’s most important holidays was “thrilling.”
“The feeling is that the Catholic Church is universal, and to be a part of that, was very exciting—to be among people of the same faith from all over the world.”