Thousands of pilgrims in Bethlehem for Christmas. But life remains difficult for Christians
Bethlehem (AsiaNews) - "The fact that this year so many pilgrims will join us for the Christmas liturgies is a sign that makes us even more sure that we are not the only ones seeking Jesus." Fr. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Custodian of the Holy Land, comments on the boom of pilgrimages for the Christmas holidays.
The flow of foreign tourists had suffered the consequences of the escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 2008 showed a reversal in the trend. Fr. Pizzaballa tells AsiaNews that this "was a truly unusual year for everyone: numbers never seen before, much greater than those recorded in 2000. During the summer in Bethlehem, there was a spike in visits, and there was no more room at the hotels. It was a period happily linked to the fact that in Bethlehem, prices are lower than in Jerusalem, so it was easy for many tourism agencies to put the city on their tours."
Palestinian authorities calculate that by the end of the year, foreign visitors in the West Bank will reach 1.6 million, almost twice as many as in 2007. The information ministry says that the new wave of pilgrimages has created 12,000 new jobs. The municipality of Bethlehem reports that the 19 hotels in the city are booked until the end of January 2009.
Fr. Pizzaballa says that he is certain that "the increase in pilgrimages has been influenced by the fact that the Holy Land is not spoken of, or is spoken of much less, as a place of conflict and tension. This has been a positive factor in allowing the 'pent-up demand' to come here to express itself." But it is not only security that has led many people to visit the places of the life of Jesus. The Custodian also adds the "great effort of the Church in the world. Parish pastors, communities, bishops, and bishops' conferences have invited their faithful to visit the Holy Land. Add the constant work of the Custody, and it's clear why we have had such a successful year in terms of pilgrimages. For a Christian to come to the Holy Land has a twofold meaning. There is the importance that the Holy Land has in itself: for a Christian to come here on pilgrimage is a necessity. And there is the solidarity with the local communities, the desire to make those who live here feel the closeness of the entire Church."
The mayor of Bethlehem, Victor Batarseh, says that for the days around December 25, the city expects about 30,000 visitors, plus another 22,000 for the Orthodox celebrations of the Nativity. Among the main beneficiaries of this influx of foreign tourists are craftsmen, shopkeepers," hotel owners, mostly Palestinian. "It's the difference between heaven and hell," affirms a business owner who, optimistically, has opened a restaurant next to the Church of the Nativity.
Batarseh says that he hopes the revival of the economy will convince the inhabitants of the city to stay, reversing the tendency that in recent years has seen the Christian population in particular leave. Data show that 40% of the 32,000 inhabitants of the city are Christian, and the rest are Muslim. But from 1950 until today, the presence of Christians has fallen by 90%.
Fr. Pizzaballa also says that he hopes the economic revival can stem the flood of Christians from Bethlehem, but he adds: "The problem is not only one of an economic nature, although this remains one of the main problems. There is a whole array of reasons, which are not only connected to the lack of work. The construction of the wall and difficulties in transport are another element. The declining number of Christians also has consequences for their public role. All of these aspects contribute to the temptation to leave. In addition to the economic revival, we also need a revival of human relationships, and for now, this aspect is lacking."
The news of the pope's visit to the Holy Land, scheduled for May, is already on everyone's lips. The Custodian says that as soon as the first reports surfaced in the media, expectation among the members of the Christian community began to grow. The hope of being able to welcome Benedict XVI is strong.
"Sustaining hope," Fr. Pizzaballa says, "is the biggest task in the situation in which we find ourselves. For this reason as well, the message for Christmas ends with the affirmation: 'There is still hope for everyone!'" The Custodian explains that "this is an appeal above all for the Christians of the Holy Land. In Bethlehem, their numbers continue to drop, and they suffer the frustration and difficulty of the conditions in which they live. With the wishes for Christmas, I want to recall that the miracle that is taking place is an invitation, in spite of everything, to renew ourselves and our zeal. The fact that this year so many pilgrims will join us for the Christmas liturgies is a sign that makes us even more sure that we are not the only ones seeking Jesus."