BETHLEHEM, Heads of the Orthodox and Oriental Churches Wednesday arrived to Manager Square in Bethlehem in anticipation of Christmas Eve as the coronavirus pandemic has put a damper on this year’s celebrations.
Unlike previous years when thousands of local faithful and tourists would gather outside the Church of the Nativity and dozens others would pack their balconies to watch the Christmas procession, only marching bands of the local scout groups were allowed for the parade that welcomed the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem and Palestine Theophilos III.
Theophilos III headed the annual procession from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem to Manger Square, passing as usual through a massive metal gate in the towering Israeli concrete wall that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem.
He was welcomed at Manger Square by a host of officials and clergy, who were wearing their face masks and maintained social distancing, ahead of the midnight mass, according to the Julian Calendar, at the Church of the Nativity, built over the grotto where Christian tradition says Jesus Christ was incarnated.
Director of the Police’s Public Department Lt. Colonel Mus‘ab Islimiya told WAFA reporter that police have sealed off all entrances and alleyways leading to Manger Square, restricting entry to security, ambulance and emergency vehicles and holders of special permits.
Spokesman of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, Issa Musleh, said that Christmas celebrations would be limited to the vespers and Midnight Mass, with the annual banquet cancelled.
“We will pray to the Lord to protect the Palestinian people against pandemics and save it from the Israeli occupation and help establish the independent Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital,” Musleh said.
This came as activists and Palestinian Christian grassroots groups, namely the Orthodox Central Council in Palestine (OCCP), staged a boycott of Theophilos III’s Christmas visit for the fourth consecutive year, denouncing his alleged involvement in the sale and rental of real estate belonging to the Orthodox Church to Israeli colonial settlement companies, deals which were unveiled in recent years.
Meanwhile, heads of the Oriental Syriac, Coptic and Ethiopian Churches in Palestine separately made their way to Manger Square in anticipation of the Nativity of Christ.
Coptic Bishop of Jerusalem Antonios said: “We will pray for defeating the coronavirus pandemic, so that we would get back to normal. We will also pray so that peace will prevail in Palestine and worldwide.”
This year, the Christmas Eve Mass, seen as the most important annual event at the Nativity church, will be closed to the public as a general lockdown remains in place across the occupied territories to help rein in the pandemic outbreak. The mass will be streamlined live on TV, as it is the case every year.
The city of Bethlehem recorded its first Covid-19 cases in early March. Numbers soon spiked to some 10,000 cases and 104 deaths, as announced by the Health Ministry.
Early on in the pandemic, Israel closed its borders to foreigners, effectively banning travel to the Palestinian territories. Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinians from other West Bank districts have not been able to visit Bethlehem for the Christmas season either.
Until the pandemic, the tourism industry in the city, which relies on Christmas time businesses, was anticipating its best year in two decades. However, the pandemic has forced hotels, souvenir shops and restaurants dotting the hometown of Jesus to shut down and lay off staff.
Many Palestinian Christians are choosing to leave their homeland to escape the 63-years of Israeli occupation of the West Bank.
Living under military occupation, Palestinian Christians have been suffering as a result of Israel’s policies of land seizures (land grab), colonial settlement construction, movement restrictions and, for those living in Jerusalem, the revocation of residency identity cards.
The Church of the Nativity is administered by three churches, the Roman Catholic Church, the Greek Orthodox Church and the Armenian Church.
Source: Palestinian News & Info Agency