Tourists gather in Bethlehem Christmas Eve, undeterred by 100 days of violence

‘My whole life I wanted to come here as a pilgrim, so it’s the day that I’ve been waiting for’

Thousands of Christian faithful gathered in Bethlehem’s Manger Square Thursday to celebrate Christmas amid heightened tensions after 100 days of violence between Palestinians and Israelis.

Most of those who came to Manger Square were Arab Christians from Bethlehem, other parts of the West Bank or Israel. Security concerns kept many foreign tourists and religious pilgrims away.

But not Auravelia Colomer.

Auravelia Colomer of Toronto in Bethlehem

Auravelia Colomer of Toronto looks at the photos she took in Bethlehem’s Manger Square on Christmas Eve, 2015. (Samer Shalabi/CBC)

“It’s my first time in the Holy Land,” said the 30-year-old from Toronto. “My whole life I wanted to come here as a pilgrim, so it’s the day that I’ve been waiting for for a long time.”

Christmas carols were sung in both Arabic and English. Bagpipes and drums thumped through the square, which lies in front of the Church of the Nativity, the traditional birthplace of Jesus Christ.

But the modern day reality of the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict has led to a serious decline in the number of visitors.

The region is seeing the worst outbreak of violence in a decade, since the end of the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising.

Since mid-September, Palestinians have carried out attacks targeting Israelis. At least 24 Israelis have been killed. More than 100 Palestinians — said by Israel to be attackers — have been killed.

Quinn family, from Milwaukee, Wis.,

The Quinn family, from Milwaukee, Wis., gathers in Manger Square, Bethlehem on Christmas Eve, 2015. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

The celebrations in Manger Square will continue through the Christmas period, but other festivities in Bethlehem were canceled or scaled down.

And the security situation remains top of mind for most visitors.

“Sometimes I feel a little, like, ‘oh, all the policemen,'” said 16-year-old Kenzie Quinn, from Milwaukee, Wis., who visited Bethlehem with her parents and six sisters. “But I feel safe. I understand that it’s tense, and you have to be careful of that, but it’s a cool place to be.”

Her mother, Heidi Quinn, echoed Kenzie: “It’s sad. The situation is sad. But we feel safe.”

On the edge of Manger Square, the Giacaman family’s wood carving shop has been a fixture for 90 years. It’s one of the most popular places for tourists to pick up Christmas decorations carved from olive wood.

Nabil Giacaman in Bethlehem tourist shop

Nabil Giacaman stands at the cash register of his family’s wood carving and tourist shop in Bethlehem’s Manger Square on Thursday. (Samer Shalabi/CBC News)

At least it used to be.

“[This is] the worst Christmas that I ever lived,” said Nabil Giacaman. “I’m 30 years old, that’s the worst I’ve ever faced. Every year, business it’s getting worse and worse and worse.”

Tourism is vital to Bethlehem’s economy, but the downturn this year due to the increased tensions is expected to hit hotel operators, taxi drivers and tour guides hard.

“This is going to be a very difficult Christmas,” said Samir Hazboun, the director of the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce.

Still, thousands were expected to turn out for the highlight of the Christmas Eve celebrations: midnight mass in the Church of the Nativity.

And Auravelia Colomer from Toronto will be in one of the pews.

“This Christmas, I’m definitely praying for peace in the Middle East and that there can be unity among all people all around the world.”


A Palestinian marching band parades during a Christmas procession at Manger Square in the West Bank town of Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. (Ammar Awad/Reuters)