As Omicron stops pilgrimages, calls are made to go beyond the pandemic

For the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, this year’s Christmas is compromised, but action should be taken to ensure an upturn next year. Working with Israeli authorities, “new ways” ought to be found to allow both religious practice and fight COVID-19. AsiaNews is organising a pilgrimage in March next year.


Jerusalem (AsiaNews) – Christmas is traditionally a time of pilgrimage in the Holy Land, but this year, the situation appears compromised; “there is no time to reopen” and the window of opportunity of the past few weeks is gone, laments Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem.

Still, hope springs eternal. For the prelate, while we have to accept that this Christmas season is a loss, “It is important to think about after the holidays.” Working with government authorities, new ways must be found to manage the pandemic while jumpstarting religious tourism next year.

With the future in mind, the Latin primate notes that pilgrimages cannot be stopped; visits must be rescheduled even during a pandemic, despite uncertainties and safety measures.

In his recent apostolic journey to Cyprus and Greece, where he met migrants and desperate people, both adults and children, Pope Francis said that it was essential to embrace without fear.

In early December, the Israeli government announced restrictions on foreign travel to the country and the occupied Palestinian territories, following reports from South Africa about Omicron, a new variant of SARS-CoV-2 virus, which is now present in many countries around the world.

The travel measures were extended until December 22, thus dashing hope that international tourism might revive by the end of the year, especially religious tourism, with the arrival of pilgrims for Christmas celebrations, as Fr Francesco Patton, Custos of the Holy Land, hoped for.

Speaking to AsiaNews, Fr Patton noted that we must transcend the emergency mindset and learn to “live with” the coronavirus, which at present seems more like a "pretext" to stop the world.

In response to his appeal, AsiaNews and the Centro PIME are organising a pilgrimage for March 2022 even though COVID-19 pandemic is still raging, and driving governments to close borders.

Last year, at the height of the pandemic just before the start of the vaccination campaign, few worshippers took part in the ceremonial lighting of the Christmas tree in Bethlehem and other places, such as Nazareth.

Participation was largely virtual, via social media and television, compared to the thousands of visitors, both local and foreign, who took part in person in the event in the years before the pandemic.

After a recent hiatus that brought some hope, Israel banned foreign travellers from entering the country for 14 days, but it is very likely that the state of emergency and related closures will continue over the next few weeks.

This measure will be particularly hard on shop owners and hoteliers in Bethlehem, who looked with renewed hope at the arrival of the first groups of pilgrims.

Souvenir seller Hanna Nissan told Jordan News that the new variant has left people like him with little hope.

“Until a week ago, we were expecting that tourism was on its way back,” he said. “We started to see signs of movement. But with the airport closure, the tourists probably will not return until next year.”

Likewise, Elias Al-Arja saw encouraging signs as hotel bookings and hirings rose, but then had to let people go because he could not pay them.

This year is a far cry from 2019, which saw four million arrivals in Israel, half of them pilgrims, bringing millions to the Palestinian territories.

With governments still overcautious, the only possible alternative is prayer for a Christmas miracle in the Holy Land.

Unless new ways are found, as Patriarch Pizzaballa noted, the place where Christianity was born might be off-limits for the foreseeable future.

One possibility is setting up COVID-free corridors between countries for pilgrims, like they do in some cases for business travel and regular tourism.

To this end, the Church of Jerusalem and the Custody should mediate with Israel to find ways out of the emergency deadlock.