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Coronavirus, and rain, dampen Christmas joy in Bethlehem

Local authorities counting on the Holy Land’s small Christian community to lift spirits for the holiday after Israel imposes tourist travel ban in attempt to stop spread of Omicron

  • Palestinian scout band members parade through Manger Square at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Dec. 24, 2021 (Mahmoud Illean/AP)
    Palestinian scout band members parade through Manger Square at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Dec. 24, 2021 (Mahmoud Illean/AP)
  • People gather outside the Church of the Nativity, revered as the site of Jesus Christ's birth, during Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem on December 24, 2021. ( ABBAS MOMANI / AFP)
    People gather outside the Church of the Nativity, revered as the site of Jesus Christ's birth, during Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem on December 24, 2021. ( ABBAS MOMANI / AFP)
  • People visit the Church of the Nativity, revered as the site of Jesus Christ's birth, during Christmas celebrations in the biblical city of Bethlehem on December 24, 2021. (Abbas Momani/AFP)
    People visit the Church of the Nativity, revered as the site of Jesus Christ's birth, during Christmas celebrations in the biblical city of Bethlehem on December 24, 2021. (Abbas Momani/AFP)
  • Palestinian scout band members parade through Manger Square at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Dec. 24, 2021 (Mahmoud Illean/AP)
    Palestinian scout band members parade through Manger Square at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Dec. 24, 2021 (Mahmoud Illean/AP)
  • Palestinian security forces stand guard inside the Church of the Nativity, ahead of Christmas celebrations in the biblical city of Bethlehem on December 24, 2021. (Jaafar Ashtiyeh / AFP)
    Palestinian security forces stand guard inside the Church of the Nativity, ahead of Christmas celebrations in the biblical city of Bethlehem on December 24, 2021. (Jaafar Ashtiyeh / AFP)
  • Palestinian scout bands parade through Manger Square at the Church of the Nativity during Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem, Dec. 24, 2021 (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)
    Palestinian scout bands parade through Manger Square at the Church of the Nativity during Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem, Dec. 24, 2021 (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)
  • A member of the Palestinian security forces stands guard at the entrance of the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, December 24, 2021. (Jaafar Ashtiyeh / AFP)
    A member of the Palestinian security forces stands guard at the entrance of the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, December 24, 2021. (Jaafar Ashtiyeh / AFP)
  • Christian pilgrims visit the Church of the Nativity, revered as the site of Jesus Christ's birth, with security forces standing guard during Christmas celebrations in the biblical city of Bethlehem on December 24, 2021. (ABBAS MOMANI / AFP)
    Christian pilgrims visit the Church of the Nativity, revered as the site of Jesus Christ's birth, with security forces standing guard during Christmas celebrations in the biblical city of Bethlehem on December 24, 2021. (ABBAS MOMANI / AFP)

AP — The biblical town of Bethlehem is gearing up for its second straight Christmas Eve hit by the coronavirus — with small crowds and gray, gloomy weather dampening celebrations Friday in the traditional birthplace of Jesus.

A ban on nearly all incoming air traffic to Israel — the main entry point for foreign visitors heading to the West Bank — has kept international tourists away for a second consecutive year. The ban is meant to slow the spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant, which has shaken Christmas celebrations around the world.

Instead, local authorities were counting on the Holy Land’s small Christian community to lift spirits.

Bethlehem’s mayor, Tony Salman, said the town was optimistic that 2021 would be better than last year’s Christmas, when even local residents stayed home due to lockdown restrictions. Bethlehem planned a return of its traditional marching band parades and street celebrations.

“Last year, our festival was virtual, but this year it will be face to face with popular participation,” Salman said.

Police erected barricades early Friday as scout bands marched through Manger Square banging drums and holding flags ahead of the expected arrival from Jerusalem of Latin Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the top Roman Catholic clergyman in the Holy Land.

Palestinian security forces stand guard inside the Church of the Nativity, revered as the site of Jesus Christ’s birth, ahead of Christmas celebrations in the biblical city of Bethlehem on December 24, 2021. (Jaafar Ashtiyeh / AFP)

Pizzaballa was scheduled to celebrate Midnight Mass at the nearby Church of the Nativity — which houses the grotto where Christians believe Jesus was born.

About 100 tourists, nearly all of them Palestinians, milled about behind the barricades to celebrate the occasion.

Before the pandemic, Bethlehem would host thousands of Christian pilgrims from around the world, bringing a strong dose of holiday spirit to the town and a huge jolt to the local economy. The loss of international tourism has hit Bethlehem’s hotels, restaurants and gift shops especially hard.

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