BETHLEHEM – In a few days Christians around the world will celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, but it's a very different Christmas season in the place where it all began two thousand years ago.
Normally at this time of year, Manger Square in the heart of Bethlehem and next to the Church of the Nativity would be filled with tourists and Christian pilgrims. But in the town where Jesus Christ was born, it's much different during the year of COVID.
"There's going to be no celebrations," said Pastor Steven Khoury, president of Holy Land Missions.
This year, Bethlehem is a tourist town without tourists.
(A Palestinian vendor sits in front of his shop near the Church of the Nativity. AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)
"The number one income for Bethlehem and the surrounding villages and towns is tourism and there is no infrastructure in place set to prepare for a pandemic," Khoury told CBN News.
Christian artisans in the Star of Bethlehem Olive Wood Factory have certainly felt the impact.
“I am suffering here and also in my factory you see here that I have here fourteen, fifteen people works here in my factory,” said owner Jamil Hosh. “I did not send any of my people home. I left them, all of them are working here in the factory. Just to get some income at the end of the week.”
That's where Artza Box comes in, a Jewish company designed to bring the Holy Land to Christians in North America.
"Israel has such strong significance to so many people, so many different faiths but about 95% of Christians in North America for example never actually make it over into Israel," Artza founder Itai Schimmel told CBN News. "We spend a lot learning the Old Testament, the New Testament, you know, all the people and stories and characters and also the life of Jesus. And you know you have no way actually to bring these stories to life."
An Artza Box subscription provides gifts from the Holy Land four times a year made by local residents. Last quarter featured Nazareth and this quarter, Bethlehem. It's their way of bringing the Bible to life.
"We decided to create Artza which delivers the experience of Israel to your doorstep and takes you on a journey through the land," explained Schimmel. "And at the same time, we help support all these small businesses and artisans and incredibly talented people especially now when tourism isn't coming here."
That includes Hosh, his family, and the factory.
“They help me a lot. I work maybe six or seven weeks in the summertime to Artza order. It was very helpful and it’s still in the beginning. I am expecting there will be more orders from Artza and to work with more items,” said Hosh.
In Jerusalem – just a few miles from Bethlehem – COVID also hit Christian businesses. Many of the Old City's alleys would be filled with tourists, but now many of these shops in the Christian Quarter of the Old City are shuttered and closed.
"Local business went down to zero," Zak Mishriky, owner of Zak's Jerusalem Gifts told CBN News. "One day, boom, it went down to zero. It's been very difficult and surely I have many people who work with me in this business and it has been very difficult for them."
Mishriky is a third-generation Christian shopkeeper in Jerusalem's Old City.
"When COVID started, I had a challenge, you know, what is next? And as soon as COVID started, I started investing online," he explained. "I sell many Christian items that (were) produced here in Jerusalem to bless the whole world and make them closer to God."
From olive wood nativity sets to coins from the time of Jesus and anointing oil, Mishriky offers a wide range of Christmas gifts. He feels it's important for Christians around the world to support their brothers and sisters in the Holy Land.
"Christians in the Middle East and especially in the Holy Land, we came down to 1%, now we're only one percent of the population here and supporting them is supporting the Holy Land; supporting them is supporting the existence of Christ here," he said
Schimmel sees his efforts through Artza as a way to fulfill the Jewish concept of ”Tikkun Olam," healing the world.
"We're not just here to help Jews, we're here to connect and help everyone with the world regardless of their faith, that's a very Jewish value which I think is very important," said Shimmel. "And secondly, the Christian support for Israel and their connection to Israel is just overwhelming and incredible so if there's a way on a personal level to give back to that then I think that's very important as well."
Both Artza and Mishriky's online store want to provide a meaningful Christmas.
"Buying gifts that have meaning, made by Christians in the Holy Land and supporting families in the Holy Land," said Mishriky.
"We really hope it brings a lot of people Christmas joy, and create your Christmas with Christmas ornaments from olive wood as well and all these beautiful products from the area which is historic, we think people will really enjoy it and we hope people really do," said Shimmel.
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