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Bethlehem bounces back from pandemic, lifting Christmas spirit

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BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) — The biblical town of Bethlehem celebrated a Merry Christmas on Saturday, with thousands of visitors descending on the traditional birthplace of Jesus as it rebounds from the coronavirus pandemic.

Tourism is the economic engine of this occupied West Bank city, and for the past two years the pandemic has kept international visitors away.

This year, visitors are back, hotels are full and traders have reported booming business as the holidays approach. Although numbers have not reached pre-pandemic levels, the return of tourists has clearly boosted morale in Bethlehem.

“We are celebrating Christmas this year in a very different way than last year,” said Palestinian Tourism Minister Rula Maayah. “We celebrate Christmas with pilgrimages from all over the world.”

Throughout the day, hundreds of people strolled through Manger Square for the Christmas Eve celebrations. Marching bands pounding drums and playing bagpipes marched through the area, and foreign tourists were serious and took selfies with the city’s tall Christmas tree behind them.

The cool, gray weather, accompanied by the occasional downpour, did little to dampen spirits, although many people headed to shops and restaurants to warm up. By nightfall, the crowd had thinned out.

Daisy Lucas, a 38-year-old Filipina who works in Israel, said it was a dream come true to mark the holidays in such an important place.

“As a Christian walking in the places of the Bible, it’s so overwhelming,” she said. It is the birthplace of Jesus Christ. As a Christian, this is an achievement that is on my to-do list.

Latin Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the highest Roman Catholic clergyman in the Holy Land, arrived from Jerusalem through a checkpoint in Israel’s West Bank separation barrier.

“We are living through very difficult challenges,” he said, noting the war in Ukraine and a recent wave of Israeli-Palestinian violence. “But the message of Christmas is a message of peace.”

“It is possible to change things,” he added. We will be very clear in what we must do and what we have to say in order to preserve the importance of unity and reconciliation among all.

Pizzaballa walked through Manger Square, waving to well-wishers before heading to the Church of the Nativity, built on the spot where Christians believe Jesus was born. Later, he was to celebrate midnight mass.

Hundreds of millions of Christians inaugurated the feast, concluding a tumultuous year characterized by conflict and violence in many parts of the world.

In war-ravaged Ukraine, the twinkling lights normally spread across Kyiv’s Sophia Square have disappeared due to restrictions and power cuts. Instead, a modest tree adorned with blue and yellow lights barely breaks the gloom of the square. Mayor Vitali Klitschko called it the ” Invincibility Tree.”

in the USA, a severe winter storm continued to envelope much of the country, bringing blinding blizzards, freezing rain, floods and deadly cold that created chaos for those traveling for the holidays.

NORAD, the US military agency known for its playful tradition of following Santa Claus as he delivers gifts on Christmas Eve, said it did not expect COVID-19 or bad weather to hit the ‘North America. affect Saint Nick’s global travels.

“I think Santa will be at home with the arctic weather hitting 48°C,” said Lt. Gen. David Nahom, a NORAD official based in Anchorage, Alaska.

In Mexico, tens of thousands of migrants who fled violence and poverty in their home country are almost certain to make it through Christmas in overcrowded shelters or on city streets Along the US border, where organized crime regularly targets them.

Today’s reality was visible in Manger Square as banners showing pictures of Palestinian prisoner Nasser Abu Hamid were prominently displayed. The veteran prisoner died of cancer last week in an Israeli prison clinic after spending some 20 years behind bars for his conviction in the deaths of seven Israelis.