Pilgrims from around the world flocked to Bethlehem on Monday for what are believed to be the largest celebrations in years.
By Associated Press and World Israel News Staff
Hundreds of locals and foreign visitors milled in Manger Square as bagpipe-playing scouts paraded past a giant Christmas tree. Crowds flooded the Church of the Nativity and waited to descend into the ancient grotto.
Palestinian Tourism Minister Rula Maaya said all Bethlehem hotels were fully booked, and the city was preparing to host an “astounding” 10,000 tourists overnight.
“We haven’t seen numbers like this in years,” she said, adding that the 3 million visitors to Bethlehem this year exceeded last year’s count by hundreds of thousands.
Linda Selbmann, 24, of Chemnitz, Germany, said she had long dreamed of visiting Bethlehem during the holidays.
The festivities traditionally bring a boost of holiday cheer to Christians in the Holy Land, whose numbers have shrunk over the decades and make up just a small percentage of the local population.
Indeed, Christian populations throughout the Middle East have been decimated over the last several decades, with the population in Bethlehem dwindling from 86% Christian in 1950 to just 12% in 2016, according to a Times of Israel report quoting former Bethlehem mayor Vera Baboun.
The demise of Christian populations in Middle Eastern countries coincides with the rise of Islamic terror groups, such Hamas, Hezbollah, ISIS, and Al-Qaeda, which often target Christian minorities.
While Bethlehem, which is ruled by the Palestinian Authority, watches its Christian population dwindle, other places in the Middle East have seen a similar phenomenon. In Iraq, for example, “75 percent of its Christian population” has disappeared in the last two decades alone, reported JNS.
Israel remains one of the only places in the Middle East where Christians do not face rampant persecution.
In Bethlehem this year, however, foreigner visitors focused on the festivities.
“This has been No. 1 on my bucket list,” said visitor Yohannes Denu, 42, of Los Angeles. “There’s no better place to be as a Christian, it takes me back to all the rich stories I heard growing up. To be at the center of my faith, it’s joyous, it’s unbelievable.”