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Because Of COVID-19 Pandemic, No Tourists Flock To Bethlehem

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And now for Christmas. In Bethlehem, the ancient community has seen so much over the years, spiked with war and conflict, but none quite like this year's holiday during a pandemic. NPR's Daniel Estrin went to the Palestinian town and has this report.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: The Church of the Nativity is shockingly empty - no pilgrims lining up to kiss the spot where tradition says Jesus was born. Local tour guide Nidal Korna idles at the entrance.

NIDAL KORNA: First Lebanese war, second Lebanese war, Gaza War, Gulf War. Whatever happened around Middle East, we were always affected - never been this situation. Today we are in the zero level.

ESTRIN: Last Christmas capped a record year for Bethlehem tourism - no room at the inns. Hotels were fully booked. Then the pandemic reached the Holy Land. And till today, Israel bans foreign tourists. The Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce says about 1 in 5 of the city's businesses will never recover. Olive woodcarver Jack Giacaman stands outside his shop.

JACK GIACAMAN: The shop closed. As you can see, it is dusty. The street is empty.

ESTRIN: Bethlehem is hemmed in by a concrete wall Israel built during a wave of Palestinian attacks. Palestinians say it makes their lives a ghetto and impedes their access to nearby Jerusalem. Giacaman says the pandemic highlights the inequalities between the two sides.

GIACAMAN: In Israel, they have a very strong government with a lot of money. They give the people during lockdown money, medical care. They have very strong medical care. Here, people don't find the medical care. They don't get money from the government. That is a big gap between the two people but just one wall separating between.

ESTRIN: But then a sudden swell of emotion in downtown Bethlehem.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMMING)

ESTRIN: The marching bands arrive - Palestinian boy and girl scouts in crisp, colorful uniforms, tossing batons in the air, playing bagpipes, drums and trombones through the quiet streets. Girl scout Celine Bitar.

CELINE BITAR: Usually, these streets are full of people, but we have to go and to show people our love to them and to this special day on Bethlehem. So this is our joy to come to here today.

(SOUNDBITE OF BAGPIPES PLAYING)

ESTRIN: They herald the arrival of the top Roman Catholic patriarch of Jerusalem, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, draped in pink. He just recovered from COVID-19 a few days before.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Hallelujah.

ESTRIN: He presides over midnight Mass of just a few dozen worshippers. The choir keeps their masks on. His homily is broadcast live.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PIERBATTISTA PIZZABALLA: Everyone feels dark and tired, exhausted, even oppressed under the heavy burden of this pandemic.

ESTRIN: He says the message of Christmas and the pandemic is that love is the only path to salvation. We are all connected, he says, and responsible for each other. Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Bethlehem.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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