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Christmas in Bethlehem Somber as Attacks Scare Tourists Away

12-23-2015
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BETHLEHEM – There's plenty of room at the inn this Christmas in Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus.

"This used to be a very joyous season for us, a lot of activities with people making money and being happy. It's a subdued mood," Makram Qumsieh, a Bethlehem businessman and Orthodox Christian, told CBN News.

The mood in Bethlehem is glum due to the lack of visitors and to make matters worse, the Palestinian Authority wants Christians in Bethlehem and the West Bank (biblical Judea and Samaria) to tone down their Christmas celebrations this year.

Believe it or not, part of the P.A.'s intent is to respect Palestinians who were killed committing terror attacks and in confrontations with Israeli troops.

The security situation is unstable – sparked by the latest wave of Palestinian terrorism and confrontations with Israeli troops.

In the last three months, 22 Israelis have been killed in terror attacks. More than 100 Palestinians have been killed – more than 75 of them, Israel says, carrying out attacks. That's scared many tourists away.

"It's been toned down because of what's happening around," Qumsieh said.

With everything going, he says it's not such a bad idea.

"It's not exactly being in solidarity with anybody. It's just being sensitive," Qumsieh explained. "You are celebrating while your next neighbor might have a martyr (sic) who is being buried."

The P.A. asked Christians to limit lights and refrain from fireworks. But local folks put most of the blame for driving away tourists on security concerns.

"A lot of tourists aren't coming," Qumsieh explained. "It's having a bad weight on the economy so people are not really very thrilled about it."

Nevertheless, Christians are doing the best they can to celebrate, he said. 

Nabil Giacaman owns the Christmas House Shop on Manger Square, which sells olive wood nativity sets and figurines, as well as other gifts and souvenirs.

"Christmas, now, this year as you can see the streets are empty," Giacaman told CBN News.

"Bethlehem is empty of tourists, not a lot of tourists. Now you have things controlling on this," he continued.

"There's things that we have from long time ago and there's the political situation that's going on at this moment," he said in reference to the current trouble.

By midday Monday, just a few days before Christmas, he'd sold just $25 worth of merchandise.

"So you can see it's a very sad Christmas -- even my shop I didn't finish decorating, usually I finish at the end of November," Giacaman said. "This year I don't feel like it. But we hope so we will have business even I doubt it."

The giant Christmas tree is up in Bethlehem, as well as some festive lighting. In the absence of Christians, local Muslims were enjoying the decorations -- taking pictures in front of the giant Christmas tree and nativity scene in Manger Square.

Last week, hundreds of people turned out for a first of its Christmas parade in Bethlehem. It mixed the Gospel theme and Santa Claus.

Just a handful of tourists were brave enough to visit the city.

Todd and Sharon Vickers from Colorado were two of them. They said they weren't afraid to come to Bethlehem and the Middle East and had a message for others.

"It's a beautiful place. It's a wonderful place to visit. The history of it alone is worth being here and the people are wonderful," Sharon Vickers told CBN News.

"Birthplace of the world," her husband, Todd, added.

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