Foreign tourists visit the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem July 10, 2021. Tourists are few and far between with the latest eruption of fighting in the Holy Land. CNS photo/Mussa Qawasma, Reuters

‘Jobless and hopeless’: Latest fighting devastates Bethlehem’s tourist industry

  • November 8, 2023

BETHLEHEM, West Bank -- “I’ve never experienced anything like this before, never! It’s a war, not ‘like a war,’ it is a war,” said Rony Tabash, a member of a Christian family that has been in Bethlehem for generations, describing how the current conflict is directly impacting the Christian community in the West Bank.

In an interview with pontifical charity Aid to the Church in Need, he said that many residents of Bethlehem are facing the tough decision of leaving their homes due to loss of hope and lack of opportunities.

Tabash is the owner of a shop in Manger Square in Bethlehem that sells religious articles. He had hoped to finally pay off his debts and recover economically after the COVID-19 pandemic, but he now finds himself confronting a bleak reality.

The absence of pilgrims has left the local economy in ruins, affecting all sectors that rely on religious tourism, from hotels and restaurants to olive wood craftsmanship and souvenir sales. Tabash emphasizes the importance of pilgrims to the Christian community in Bethlehem and stresses that the lack of visitors has left many families “jobless and hopeless.”

“There are no pilgrims … everything is empty, there’s no one. And they say it will last until Easter. I am not just concerned about money or the economy, although I don’t know how I’ll make it to the end of the month, but I am concerned about the future of Christian sites and Christian families,” he lamented.

The owner of the religious souvenir shop also shared his concern for the safety of his family and the citizens of Bethlehem.

“These days, there are bombs in the sky over Bethlehem; children are scared,” he said.

Meanwhile, Israeli troops have encircled Gaza City, waging “face-to-face battles” with Hamas as they push forward with what officials have predicted will be a long and bloody ground invasion following Hamas’ attack on Israel Oct. 7.

Israel has come under increasing international pressure for a ceasefire to allow humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has refused until all of the more than 200 hostages Hamas captured are released. He has also vowed to destroy Hamas.

The situation is more and more dire for the residents of Gaza, which has taken the brunt to Israel’s retaliation. Upwards of 10,000 are said to be dead, according to the local health authority, which is part of the government of Hamas.

On Nov. 2, Pope Francis discussed the latest developments in Gaza and the West Bank with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian news agency WAFA reported and the Holy See Press Office confirmed to OSV News. During the conversation, Abbas expressed his appreciation for the role and efforts of Pope Francis in supporting peace-building endeavours in the region and around the world, WAFA said.

Pope Francis, in response, emphasized the importance of achieving peace and ending the war in this region and around the world, as well as the urgent need to provide humanitarian assistance to all in a timely manner. He also said he is “deeply saddened” for the civilian casualties and assured that he would stay in touch with Abbas in the coming period for further consultations and assistance, WAFA reported.

Abbas emphasized the vital importance of the Vatican continuing its efforts to secure an immediate ceasefire, WAFA said. He stressed the need to “spare civilians the horrors of war.

At least 355 foreign passport holders — including confirmed British, U.S., French, Italian and Austrian nationals — and 76 wounded Palestinians crossed to Egypt Nov. 1, marking the first foreign nationals evacuated from Gaza. Eighty Canadians were on the latest list of those approved to leave as of Nov. 7, according to a BBC report. More than 400 people had registered with Canada to leave.

There have been numerous delays in getting foreign nationals out of Gaza. The exit of foreigners was shut down Nov. 4 and 5 in an apparent dispute over evacuating injured patients, BBC reported.

For Tabash, there is no way out of the West Bank, he wants to stay. He said that the few people who have dual nationality are leaving their homeland because they have lost hope.

“A friend of mine who had a small bus business is leaving the Holy Land this weekend,” he said.

But Tabash said he keeps “opening my shop every day.”

“I go to the square, in front of the Basilica of the Nativity, and people ask me why I’m going; I’m the only one opening the shop. The only thing that sustains me is faith; without faith, I couldn’t continue, not even for a minute. We’ve lost hope; all that’s left is faith,” he told ACN.

“I can’t leave this; I can’t leave my father,” Tabash said. “He tells me, ‘Have faith, Bethlehem is a sacred place, it won’t be touched.’ Yes, I will stay because it’s a sacred place; we’re living in the place where Jesus was born; we can’t leave; if it weren’t for that, I would leave instantly.

“But as a Palestinian Christian my mission is to be here, even though new challenges come every day. The war has to end. We are tired; we want peace, only peace for our children and our families.”

In a telephone conversation with ACN, Sr. Nabila Saleh, a Sister of the Holy Rosary, who is taking refuge in the Holy Family Parish complex in Gaza along with 700 other Christians, expressed deep concern for the 100 traumatized children who are currently housed in the complex and have known nothing but war.

“We just want peace. We have had six wars in Gaza. Children only know war,” she lamented.

But despite the dire circumstances, Saleh remains resilient, believing that “staying busy and helping others is the best way to cope with the devastation.”

Holy Family Parish is providing aid and shelter to wounded and displaced Christians affected by the ongoing violence, most of whom have lost their homes. Along with six other sisters and a Catholic priest, Saleh has been working tirelessly to support the community.

The Holy Family community has no electricity or running water. They have resorted to using water from a well, though they fear it could run dry at any time, and the mineral water they buy is three times the original price.

Speaking to the pontifical charity ACN, Tabash made an international appeal for the preservation of the sacred place where Jesus was born.

“Is this place only sacred to me, to my family, to us Palestinians in the West Bank? Isn’t it a sacred place for all Christians in the world?” he wondered. “Many people have the desire to come to the Holy Land, and it’s time to help us, to be present in these holy places.”

Due to travel restrictions and the danger in the region, Tabash knows that people can’t physically come, but urged faithful to help Christians in the Holy Land in other ways: “Come with your prayers, come with your actions asking for peace, come by defending the integrity of these places. The silence scares me. Come, with your support for the Christian families in the Holy Land.”

On Oct. 29, the feast of the Virgin Mary, Queen of Palestine and the Holy Land, Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, performed an act of consecration of the Holy Land to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, consecrating the Church, all humanity, the peoples of the Middle East and especially the people of the Holy Land to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

“We now knock on the door of your heart,” Pizzaballa prayed. “We are your beloved children. We are confident that, in the most troubled moments of our history, you will not be deaf to our supplication and will come to our aid.”

(With files from Maria Lozano, director of ACN International Press and Media Department)

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