Christian pilgrims and tourists flock to Bethlehem
See Also: Visiting Bethlehem
See Also: Peace on Earth
By Ana and Angela Barrios, The Manila Times, December 24, 2007
“The presence of the singers, orchestra and soloists transcends the differences existing among peoples of the world, and unites us in friendship and hope in this deeply symbolic season.”
Israel and holy sites in the West Bank are experiencing a renewed surge of tourism this year—a lot them Christian pilgrims braving the terrorist threats that always hover above Bethlehem.
Some of the pilgrims are Overseas Filipino Workers from Europe and the Arab countries.
Bethlehem is where the Church of Nativity is located and the place where, Christians believe, Jesus was born, prepared for the Christmas influx. The town’s mayor, Victor Batarseh, expects the total of tourists this Christmas to reach 65,000. This is approximately four times the number that came in Christmas 2005.
On Tuesday (December 18) in Jerusalem, the Director General of the Israeli Ministry of Tourism Shaul Tzemach, said 500,000 Christian tourists have so far in 2007 made a pilgrimage to Israel and 340,000 tourists traveled to Bethlehem. Israel proudly claims that since its creation, Israel has provided freedom of religion for Christians, as well as for Muslims, Jews and other faiths that have holy sites in the country.
For the 2007 Christmas season, the Ministry of Tourism along with the Israeli Police and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have coordinated their efforts with the Palestinian Ministry for Tourism as well as Palestinian organizations in the private sector to ensure the safe passage of Christian pilgrims from Jerusalem into Bethlehem.
Israel Ministry of Tourism staff will man the Rachel crossing into Bethlehem on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, twenty-four hours a day with staff from the IDF’s District Coordination Office (DCO) in the Palestinian Territories. The Ministry will also provide a bus shuttle every 30 minutes from the Mar Elias Monastery just south of Jerusalem to the Church of the Nativity on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
Israeli Tourism Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch said, “Tourism cooperation is in the joint economic interests of both Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The many pilgrims who are currently visiting create a bridge for cooperation, understanding and peace between the peoples. We will work together in order to assure full freedom of religion.”
Lt. Col. Kamil Wahabee of the IDF’s DCO Unit said a number of restrictions inside the West Bank have been eased for the holiday season. He also said that the government has lifted a general prohibition on Israeli civilians visiting the West Bank without a permit; a gesture intended to allow Israeli Arabs to visit family in the West Bank over the holiday season.
Thousands of entry permits have also been granted to Palestinian Christians wishing to visit family in Israel over Christmas. Eight thousand permits have been granted to residents of Bethlehem alone, with four hundred permits granted to its Muslim residents. Hundreds of permits were distributed in other cities for the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha, or “Sacrifice Feast,” which was celebrated on Wednesday (December 19). Five hundred permits were requested by Christians from Gaza to visit Israel, Bethlehem and the West Bank, all of which were granted.
Aharonovitch and Nazareth Mayor Ramez Jaraisy will host the traditional reception for leaders of Israel’s Christian communities on Christmas Eve at the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth. Local Jewish, Christian and Muslim mayors will also be in attendance.
Former British Prime Minister and International Quartet envoy, Tony Blair, spent the night in Bethlehem on Tuesday (December 11) to help revive tourism in the town and demonstrate that it is a secure travel destination. Said Blair, “I’m trying to illustrate that … It [Bethlehem] is a safe and good place to come and visit.”
In addition to al the Christmas preparations, the Jerusalem municipality distributed Christmas trees on December 20, as it does every year.
This Christmas will also witness the largest event in Manger Square, in Bethlehem, since 1999. A choir comprised of three church groups from the US, together with Israeli and Palestinian musicians, will give performances in Amman, Jordan; Nazareth; and Jerusalem. The 160-voice choir will then give a climactic performance on Christmas Eve in Manger Square. One of the organizers of the tour, Rev. Sam Morris, senior pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Columbus, Mississippi said, “While the music is the traditional Christmas music of Handel and John Rutter, the presence of the singers, orchestra and soloists transcends the differences existing among peoples of the world, and unites us in friendship and hope in this deeply symbolic season.”
Unfortunately, terrorist activity in the Bethlehem district is still a serious problem, accounting for the IDF’s ongoing operations in the area. In 2007 alone, there have been numerous incidents involving terrorists in the Bethlehem region.
On October 11, the IDF detained Issa Muhammad Jawarish in Bethlehem, a high-ranking Hamas member active in the West Bank.
On September 9, Israeli security forces detained a high-ranking operative of the Iran-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorist group and his collaborator in the village of Al-Shawawra, east of Bethlehem. The two belonged to a terrorist squad active in the area.
On August 8, an improvised explosive device was detonated against IDF forces operating in Beit Omar, a village near Bethlehem, and two Molotov cocktails were thrown at them.
On April 12, shots were fired at Israeli civilians in a car, close to the settlement of Tekoa, south of Bethlehem, by members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorist group. 
On January 4, Israeli security forces detained Tawfiq Abu Zaid in Bethlehem. During 2006, Abu Zaid had been involved in many shooting attacks directed against IDF forces and enlisted operatives to carry out shooting attacks and plant explosive devices for ambushes against IDF soldiers. He also manufactured weapons, specializing in explosive devices.
The authors are executives of ANA Tours, an agency that handles travel to Israel.
Source: Manila Times