Christian pilgrimage sites in the Holy Land, including the sites of Jesus’ birthplace in Bethlehem, will once again be inaccessible to foreign Christian travelers this Christmas due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the recent increase in the omicron variant .
The Israeli government has been accused of discriminating against Christian tourists during the busy Christmas holiday period by closing its border to foreigners but granting an exception to young Jews.
Israel has mainly restricted international tourists since March 2020, when many countries began implementing lockdown policies in response to the pandemic, and had only started admitting fully vaccinated foreign visitors in early November. With the emergence of the omicron variant, travel restrictions were reimposed.
A ban on foreign travelers to Israel was re-instituted at the end of last month for two weeks and was subsequently extended. In addition to banning foreign travel, Israeli authorities have also banned residents from traveling to several foreign countries to curb the spread of omicron.
While Bethlehem is in the Palestinian-controlled West Bank, the only way for most foreign pilgrims to access the city is through Israel.
Bethlehem is a popular destination for tourists during the holidays as many Christian pilgrims visit the ancient site, especially Manger Square.
The now crippled tourism industry in Bethlehem and other sites in the Holy Land has been devastated. This will be the second year in a row that foreigners will not be able to visit the region.
In mid-December, Israeli officials made an exception to the foreign travel ban for young Jews around the world who wish to travel under a “birthright” exception. But restrictions remain in place for other foreigners, including Christian pilgrims who wish to visit the historic towns Jesus visited during his earthly ministry. These include Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Nazareth.
A spokesperson and counselor for churches in the Holy Land, Wadi Abunassar, took to social media to say that various Christian denominations are unhappy with what they see as discrimination against Christian pilgrims.
“Racist discrimination should never be accepted in any way! He wrote in a Facebook post, as reported by The Associated Press. “I urge the Israeli authorities to treat all those who wish to visit the country on an equal footing, without any discrimination between religions.
A Catholic Church official told the AP that the church has asked Israel’s Tourism Ministry to make an exception for Christian pilgrims during the Christmas season.
US-based persecution watchdog group International Christian Concern said local hotel owners and workers in Bethlehem were preparing for an influx of visitors – expecting to be filled to 70% of their capacity. .
In 2013, last year’s data was made available by the Palestinian Authority, around 1.16 million foreign tourists visited the area, according to the ICC. The nonprofit further noted that while Israeli hotels and the tourism sector received government allocations, those in the Palestinian territories received only a one-time allocation of $ 224.
More than 4.5 million foreigners visited Israel in 2019, with Christian pilgrims accounting for around 25% of that total.
In 2020, the number of foreign visitors to Israel fell to less than one million as Israel and the Palestinian territories recorded high infection rates. Foreign visitors were mostly banned last Christmas.
According to the New York Times, it was hoped this year that as many as 15,000 pilgrims would visit the area for Christmas despite travel complications and other challenges related to the virus.
“For the people of Bethlehem, it would have been important oxygen,” Abunassr told the newspaper. “The community is suffering.
The Church of the Nativity, one of Bethlehem’s most famous sites, has undergone extensive repairs, with renovations expected to continue.
Such restoration projects are aided with contributions from the Americans. Restoration work on the church has so far cost at least $ 15 million, of which the Friends of Bethlehem American Foundation and the Bethlehem Development Foundation have raised at least $ 2.6 million, split evenly.
The old church was named a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2012. It was previously on UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger in due to a “poor state of conservation” before its withdrawal in 2019.