Christians flock to Israel, Bethlehem for Christmas

Christmas celebration in Bethlehem, Photo: Facebook

Israel is expecting 20 percent more Christian pilgrims this Christmas season over last year during what has become a record-breaking year for tourism here, the country’s Ministry of Tourism said on Wednesday.

Tens of thousands of Christian pilgrims are expected to arrive in the country over the Christmas holiday.

“Israel invites the faithful from all religions to pray, worship and visit all the holy sites in Israel in freedom and security,” said Tourism Minister Yariv Levin.

“I am proud to take this opportunity to announce that this year we have broken all previous records for incoming tourism, and are set to end 2017 with a record 3.5 million tourists – half a million more than the previous record,” he added.

Last year, more than half of Israel’s 2.9 million visitors were Christian, some 120,000 of them visiting in December. This year the Tourism Ministry is offering free buses every 30 minutes between Jerusalem and Bethlehem from Christmas Eve through Christmas Day.

Tourism also increased in the Palestinian territories, with 2.7 million visitors in 2017, compared to 2.3 million in 2016, according to Jiries Qumsieh, a Tourism Ministry official. Hotels in Bethlehem were more than 90 percent booked for Christmas, he said.

Christmas in Bethlehem will also have political overtones this year after U.S. President Donald Trump’s recognition on Dec. 6 of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Banners hung in Manger Square proclaim that Jerusalem is the eternal capital of Palestine.

Bethlehem is the traditional birthplace of Yeshua and borders southern Jerusalem. It is in Palestinian territory and is walled off by the security barrier that Israel erected.

Manger Square houses the 6th-century Church of the Nativity, which is controlled jointly by three Christian denominations – the Armenian Church, the Roman Catholic Church and the Greek Orthodox Church. Visitors to the church line up to see the grotto, the underground cave which some claim is the location Yeshua was born.