Gaza conflict deters Bethlehem Christmas pilgrims

Story highlights

  • Authorities in Bethlehem say Christians have been canceling Christmas pilgrimages
  • The cause is the recent conflict in the region between Israel and Hamas
  • They hope bookings will recover due to interest following a U.N. status upgrade
  • Bethlehem, in the West Bank, is the most important tourist site in the Palestinian Territories
Authorities in the Palestinian town of Bethlehem are hoping it won't be a silent night this Christmas Eve, following a spate of tourist cancellations due to recent violence in Gaza.
The West Bank town of around 29,000 people, eight kilometers (five miles) south of Jerusalem, contains the Church of the Nativity, venerated by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus.
One of the oldest surviving Christian churches in the world, it has been considered the site of Christ's birth since at least the 2nd century, and is the most significant tourist attraction in the Palestinian territories.
But Palestinian authorities are concerned that the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas will deter pilgrims from visiting the site during the traditional Christmas boom season this month.
Conflict's impact
Although Israel's conflict was with Hamas -- the Islamist group which controls the other Palestinian territory of Gaza, located about 70 kilometers away -- the week-long bout of violence prompted many potential visitors to Bethlehem to cancel their bookings.
Map: Where is Bethlehem?
"It's had a big impact," said Jiries Qumsiyeh, spokesman for the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities. "We've had some cancellations."
Bethlehem drew about 140,000 visitors -- many of them religious pilgrims -- in the two weeks around Christmas last year, said Qumsiyeh, providing an important boost to the Palestinian economy.
Carmen Ghattas, spokeswoman for the Bethlehem Municipality, said she feared that would not be the case this season.
"We expected a decrease in tourism, and many tourists have canceled," she said. "This season if the tourists do not come we will not have a good economic situation, and the citizens will be affected."