Belén wants to keep the Christmas spirit

Not even in wars do we reach a situation of zero tourists! ”Yousef walks in a deserted Nativity Square. Observe municipal officials who work on decoration and lighting tasks. Since he started working as a guide in 1997, Yousef was used to receiving an average of two groups of pilgrims a month and the visit to the Nativity was one of the highlights of the itinerary. Where before he was surrounded by more than a hundred people eager to see the place where Jesus was born, according to tradition, now he walks alone and with his head down.

You do not need a microphone to be attended to, you can hear every step you take and sighs of surprise. “I have not received any tourists since March, all trips have been canceled due to the pandemic and we do not know when the activity will start again. My savings are running out and we Palestinian guides do not receive aid from the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), what can we do? ”He asks himself under the large Christmas tree that presides over the square.

“Christmas is not canceled, this year’s slogan will be ‘hope and light’ to help renew our lives and overcome the consequences of the pandemic, we want to send a message of hope to the world », in the words of the mayor of Bethlehem, Anton Salman. The main events are maintained, but with very limited capacity and with broadcasts via the Internet. This is how the lighting was carried out on the 5th, the date that marked the official start of an orphan Christmas of pilgrims, quite the opposite of the last one, which the authorities described as “The busiest in recent decades.” According to data from the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism, Bethlehem received three million visitors in 2019, a record number. Twelve months later, there is not a soul, hotels and shops are closed and the economy has been devastated because in this city the tourism of faith is the economic engine. The official figures of the ANP speak of 105,000 infected by coronavirus and 910 deaths.

Mikel Ayestaran

Yousef advances towards the church and increases his disbelief. His home is just a few minutes’ drive away in the town of Beit Sahour, but he hadn’t been here since he fired his last group. “At this time of year the queues used to reach the middle of the square, each group needed an average of two hours to access the temple and go down to the grotto. At that time he took the opportunity to review details of the trip or anticipate what awaited them in the following days. Nobody wanted to leave the Holy Land without having the experience of spending at least a few seconds in the place where Jesus was born, ”recalls Yousef, who is also one of the few Palestinian guides who have permission to work in Israel, which allowed him to accompany the groups throughout their journey in the Holy Land. This permit expired a few months ago and now he does not know if the Israelis will renew it again. If they don’t, you won’t be able to go to work outside of the West Bank. «What will become of my family?», He asks himself in perfect Spanish, the result of his years of studying Tourism in Madrid and his extensive experience with groups from Spain and Latin America.

Alone in the manger

Inside the Church of the Nativity, silence reigns. The Franciscan from Badajoz Miguel Cobo has dedicated half his life to the Holy Land. With one foot in the convent of Campo de los Pastores and another in the Nativity, he shares the surprise and frustration of guides like Yousef. «We have never seen this place like this, the only visits we have are those of an expatriate who lives in Jerusalem or those of neighbors from Bethlehem, many of them Muslims, who for the first time can enjoy this place without having to queue ”, he explains while observing the result of the restoration works. This religious man with a long white beard and deep gaze speaks everything that he has not been able to speak in the last few months in which he has not received a single pilgrim. He explains every detail, date and stone of the temple, greets with effusion the Greek and Armenian priests that he crosses and answers the questions of the Muslim locals who enter this church for the first time.

The grocer Louis Michel.
The grocer Louis Michel. / Mikel Ayestaran

The scaffolding has already disappeared from the exterior and interior of the temple. After seven years of intense work, only a few details remain to be completed, but funds are needed for that final auction in this temple dating from the 4th century AD and which was erected by order of the Roman Emperor Constantine I. “The most spectacular are the mosaics, you have to think that before the whole wall was decorated, but today only some parts have been rescued and they are wonderful”, says Father Cobo. Thanks to the meticulous work of a team of Italian and Palestinian professionals, the mosaics shine like new with combinations of gold, green, pink … pure light. A procession of Byzantine angels again points to the newcomers in the direction of the manger.

The grotto in which Jesus was born is the only part that has remained pending renovation and its ceilings and walls blackened by candle smoke contrast with the luminosity of the rest of the temple. The Catholic Church, the Greek Orthodox Church and the Armenian Apostolic Church share custody of the grotto and an agreement between the three is necessary to be able to work there, a situation similar to that of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. That agreement has not happened and the grotto will have to wait.

Deserted streets

Outside the Nativity, on the street of the Milk Grotto, metal shutters cover the shop windows that used to show nativity scenes made of olive wood. Silence again. The Saint Patrick store is one of the few that has decided to open in anticipation of the miracle. Inside, Louis Michel hangs on the wall, in a visible place, the certificates granted by the Ministry of Health that guarantee that he complies with all the regulations to be able to sell in times of pandemic. It has gel to clean their hands at the entrance, a box with masks and disposable plastic gloves so that customers can touch the figures. “We are ready to receive the pilgrims, but nobody knows when they will return. I was born in this store and I can say that not even in the Intifadas did we see anything like it. There has been nothing comparable to the coronavirus, it is a global scourge, “says this veteran souvenir seller. In addition to gels, gloves, and masks, Louis works hard to clean each figurine, and the floor and windows of Saint Patrick are gleaming. Last year they opened the blind at six in the morning and they did not stop receiving groups, now the only buyers are the journalists who come to interview them.

The guide Yousef, with hardly any work.
The guide Yousef, with hardly any work. / Mikel Ayestaran

The image is similar in Calle de la Estrella, the route that according to tradition José and María followed until they reached the portal and which together with the Basilica of the Nativity is part of the set declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. This street has been restored for the third time in twenty years, this time with money from Russian cooperation, new paving stones have been laid, the blinds of shops painted in colors and “we have even started a project consisting of a house of Santa Claus oriented to the little ones, but with the pandemic everything is frozen, “says George Lama, one of those responsible for the work on this emblematic street of Bethlehem that, like the rest of the holy city, lives the most important days of the year in solitude and silence.


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