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Amid Middle East gloom, Christmas brings some cheer in Bethlehem

Christian worshipers light candles inside the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on Nov. 26, 2016. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Mussa Qawasma

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (Reuters) – This Christmas, for once, Bethlehem really can boast again that there is no room at the inn, as relative calm in the Israeli-occupied West Bank brings pilgrims and tourists flocking to the town of Jesus’s birth.

Elias Al-Arja of the Bethlehem hoteliers’ association said the troubles of the surrounding region had boosted numbers in the biblical Holy Land, and bookings were up on last year.

Tourism is a major source of revenue for the Palestinian economy – and provides livelihoods for about 5,000 families in Bethlehem, which has some 5,000 rooms in 46 hotels.

“Hopefully all will go well, and there’s full occupancy in all Bethlehem hotels on the 23rd, 24th and 25th of December,” Arja said.

Israeli-Palestinian violence has driven tourists away in the past, especially during the 2000-2005 Palestinian uprising when Bethlehem was a particularly lonely place.

While the security situation is more relaxed now, Israeli roadblocks and a six-meter (20-foot) Israeli-built concrete separation barrier snaking through the landscape are still part of the Bethlehem vista.

Palestinian Tourism Minister Rula Ma’ayah said 2.3 million tourists have visited the Palestinian territories this year, slightly more than last.

The main attractions in Bethlehem are the 4th-century Church of the Nativity, built over a grotto where Christian tradition says Jesus was born, and the Christmas tree in Manger Square, where choirs sing carols during the holiday.

The church, on UNESCO’s list of endangered World Heritage sites, is currently undergoing its first comprehensive renovation since it was completed 1,700 years ago.

On Christmas Eve, the acting Latin patriarch of Jerusalem will lead an annual procession to Bethlehem and then celebrate Midnight Mass in the church.

Many of the pilgrims’ Holy Land itineraries include nearby Jerusalem and Jesus’s boyhood town of Nazareth in the Galilee, now the largest Arab city in Israel.

Checking into her hotel, Evana, a tourist from Poland, summed it up: “Very nice place, very historical – and we came to see everything: Jerusalem, Nazareth, Bethlehem.”

Bethlehem’s Christmas season lasts through the Eastern Orthodox celebration on Jan. 7 to Armenian Christmas on Jan. 18.

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Jerome Socolovsky

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  • A solitary shepherd, standing watch upon a hill, wrapped his cloak more tightly against the evening chill. The night was sharp with clarity, as never ’til now had been. A vault of stars like gemstones, shone pure, and white, and clean. His flock slept sweet, secure, in a hollow of pasture land. Nestled as if protected in the shepherd’s gentle hand. A village lay upon his left, the horizon on his right. He spied a distant caravan moving slowly through the night. A star blazed forth suddenly, most directly overhead. The camel train surged forward with a quickened steady tread. A song burst forth around him by an unseen angelic choir, with light and sound it grew, in joy and praise, in power. A wise and kindly Seraph then stood near to hand. “Fear not, but find thy way to Ephrath Bethlehem. Where Emmanual Messiah, lies swaddled now at birth. The Hope of Israel, the Prince of Peace on Earth.” The heavenly herald then faded from the startled shepherd’s sight. He turned to stare in wonder at the village’s clustered lights. His shepherd’s crook did guide him as he carefully made his way, to the rude and makeshift manger where the newborn child lay. The Magi were there before him, wise Chaldeans from the East, who discovered by diligent study, that “Bethlehem, not the least, should bring forth a mighty Governor, merciful, just, and true; In Covenant with Israel, and the Gentile nations too.” The wise men bowed before the Babe and offered precious gifts, in worship and adoration; the humble shepherd felt bereft. In confusion, yet with dignity, he offered up his staff, to the mother and her husband, who were seated on the chaff. They smiled with warmth upon him as he quietly turned to go, he then beckoned to them gently, his voice both soft and low. “My gift is rough and used,” he said, “As you may easily tell. But who can say, perhaps some day, He’ll shepherd flocks as well.” He disappeared into the night, warmed despite the evening chill, and returned to his faithful vigil on the moonlit hill. Merry Christmas & Happy Holidays.

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