BETHLEHEM, West Bank – There’s been something missing in the birthplace of Christianity: Christians.
For years, Palestinian Christians have been quietly abandoning the place where Jesus is said to have been born in a manger. Middle-class residents have left for less chaotic lives in Latin America, Europe and the United States.
Tourism ground to a halt more than 10 years ago, during the second Palestinian intefadeh, or uprising, but is now coming back.
But Palestinians say major challenges remain: the military checkpoints and security barrier that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem, a 10-minute drive away; the shuttered homes and shops that are symbols of a stagnant economy, and the Israeli settlements that are growing around Bethlehem on land claimed by the Palestinians for a future state.
Mayor Vera Baboun wants to make her city open to all. A Christian whose late husband spent three years in an Israel jail during the first intefadeh, Baboun wants to lure back residents and roll out the red carpet to encourage Christian pilgrims to extend their stays.
Borrowing a tactic from American retailers, she lit the Christmas tree in Manger Square two weeks earlier than usual this year and kept the crafts market open for eight days instead of one.
She is expediting permits for five boutique hotels that will add 300 rooms to the existing supply of 3,700, which are filled during Christmas week but often sit empty the rest of the year. Efforts are underway to improve handicapped accessibility to the town and to renovate the Church of the Nativity.
“This is the place where the message of peace was born with Jesus Christ,” Baboun said. “When they talk about reviving the message, you need to revive the city.”
Clergy say the outmigration eventually could reduce Bethlehem’s historic churches to mere tourist attractions. “It’s not enough to come and see the ancient stones,” one parish priest said. “You need the living stones.”
Tourist visits are up this year, to about 1.6 million visitors, Palestinians officials say. Most visitors come by charter bus, however, and linger just long enough to peer into the grotto where Jesus is said to have been born. Few stop to shop. Almost all stay at hotels inside Israel, which competes with Bethlehem for tourism dollars.
Taxis from Jerusalem often refuse to take travelers into Bethlehem, and Jewish Israelis are warned against entering the city, according to the Israeli Defense Forces. Detailed Google navigational maps end at the Israeli military checkpoints.
“We cannot improve the tourism sector under occupation,” Palestinian Tourism Minister Rula Ma’aya said.
Efforts to stem Christian emigration have gone even more slowly.
Christian leaders arrange meetings with tourism and economic development officials with visiting émigrés, who show up “with a lot of enthusiasm to invest and create jobs,” said Fayrouz Khoury, deputy director of the Chamber of Commerce. “But when they see the conditions aren’t so encouraging, they leave again.”
Khoury estimated Bethlehem’s unemployment rate at more than 23 percent — among the highest in the West Bank.
Rami Nuseir, executive director of the New York-based United Christian Communities, said Palestinian expatriates “have the skills, they have the money” to make a difference in Bethlehem. His organization works to “halt the flight of Christians from the Holy Land,” according to its website, and “to encourage those who have left to return.”
Some older Bethlehem Christians point to an ongoing Christian exodus from Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt as another threatening sign. But in the West Bank, “the narrative that we’re leaving because the Muslim community treats us badly is a lie,” said Fadi Kattan, a Paris-educated returnee. “Christians have left because they have the means. The old business families have all left.”
Kattan is fixing up a house his family owns in Bethlehem’s Old City and trying to launch a career in tourism. It isn’t easy, he said, sipping an espresso in the lobby cafe of the Ottoman-era Jacir Palace. His great-grandmother was raised here. Now it is a luxury hotel, part of the InterContinental chain.
One sign of international support for Bethlehem’s rejuvenation is a new billboard in Manger Square touting a “gift from the American people to the Palestinian people” — a U.S. Agency for International Development-funded road improvement project, part of a $100 million West Bank infrastructure package.