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    Usually filled with tourists during the Christmas season, the streets of Bethlehem will be empty this year as authorities recommended a limit in celebrations to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

    Millions of people from around the world travel to Bethlehem to enjoy the annual Christmas Eve celebrations such as processions and midnight Mass. Last year, more than 3.5 million tourists came to Bethlehem to celebrate the season. Authorities go to great lengths to secure tourists and prepare arrangements for pilgrims. But, this year, the Palestinian Health Ministry has advised reducing Christmas festivities in the city to safeguard the health of the public, reports Premier Christian News.

    We will not risk the lives of our people in order to be festive. —Bethlehem Mayor Anton Salman

    The ministry said the Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Manger Square can be attended by 50 people only. Lights and restaurants around the area will be closed at 9pm and religious services are expected to have fewer people in attendance.

    Aside from the ministry’s restrictions, airport closures will prevent pilgrims from flocking to Bethlehem. Israel’s international airport is the main entry point for foreign travelers and it has been closed for months because of the pandemic.

    Bethlehem Mayor Anton Salman said this year’s celebration will be held online. “We will celebrate Christmas this year virtually, from a distance,” he said. “We will not risk the lives of our people in order to be festive. Life and health of people are more important for us and gathering of people in the streets will increase the risk of infection.”

    Salman stressed the importance of scaling down the number of attendees and disclosed that the Christmas celebrations will be broadcasted on TV and social media apps. “This year’s Christmas celebrations will be observed with the participation of the minimum number of worshippers and strict precautionary measures.”

    The Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities revealed that 70% of Bethlehem’s economy relies on foreign tourism, especially during the Christmas season, and the Covid-19 pandemic has devastated the tourism industry, reports Xinhua News.

    “The suspension of tourist activity is accompanied by difficulties that prevent the revival of domestic tourism in Bethlehem due to the general economic deterioration of the Palestinian citizens,” said Spokesman for the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities Jereyes Qumseyah.

    According to the Palestinian Association of Hotel Owners in the city, there are about 70 hotels in Bethlehem with 3,000 workers, most of whom lost their jobs because of the pandemic. Also, hundreds of craft shops and workshops remained closed. Shop owners hope for the re-opening of the city after nine months without work.

    In an interview with Aid to the Church in Need, Rony Tabash, owner of the Nativity Store in Bethlehem, said the Coronavirus is the biggest crisis he has faced in his life. He hopes tourists will be able to visit the city soon. “Tell the pilgrims, we are waiting for you to come back again. The Church is all of us. We are united. The spirit of the pilgrims is the Church. Without the pilgrims, something is missing in the Holy Land.”