Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Tourists and pilgrims may be sparse in Bethlehem this year as the economic and security situation remains difficult. But local residents of the town where Jesus was born say they will celebrate Christmas regardless.
Bajis Ismail, Director General of the PA Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, which is located in Bethlehem, said there will be a traditional Christmas in Bethlehem, with the giant tree in Manger Square lit as usual. "Nothing will be changed about the religious ceremonies," Ismail added.
Nevertheless, the general mood of the people is not very good, he said. The people have suffered a lot, especially when Israeli troops temporarily took up positions in the city two months ago.
Bethlehem's economy, which is based on tourism, has been ravaged by the intifadah. Israeli closures of the city and the security situation have discouraged tourism and prevented residents from getting to jobs in nearby Jerusalem, causing incomes to plummet.
"Everything is paralyzed," Ismail said. More than 90 percent of the tourist sector workers are unemployed, with hotels and shops closed and tour guides out of work.
Nevertheless, Bethlehem is still trying to promote pilgrimage to the city because of its importance to the Christian world. It is an unprecedented situation that the city is experiencing, Ismail said. Even PA Chairman Yasser Arafat has encouraged Christmas celebrations to proceed as normal.
But despite the security situation and unemployment, local Christians, who reportedly are filling the churches, will celebrate Christmas.
"We are concerned that there are no tourists," said Dr. Bishara Awad, President of the Bethlehem Bible College.
"The economy depends on tourism and that is sad. But we will celebrate as a staff and a community. We want the people to be blessed," Awad said by telephone.
Unlike last year, when the only decorations in town were the ones that had not been removed from the previous year, Christmas lights and decorations have already been displayed in the city.
Last Christmas should have punctuated the millennium with landmark celebrations in Bethlehem. But instead many of the festivities were cancelled due to the ongoing violence.
But this year, after almost 16 months of bloodshed --some of it right in Bethlehem and neighboring Beit Jala -- the Christian community seems to be rising to meet the challenge.
"For us [Christmas is] one of the biggest events of the year," Awad said.
Activities planned for the community include a dinner at the one of the Bethlehem hotels. More than 1,200 local Christians have been invited to attend the event, which will include a meal, scripture reading, and sermon, he said.
There will be a Santa Claus who will distribute gifts to the children. The gifts have been packaged and sent from other children in America as part of a ministry connected with evangelist Billy Graham. There will be special prayers and many people will have Christmas trees, he said.
"It will not be anything elaborate," Awad said. "It will not be like it should be."
The community, he said, feels that the celebrations should not be overdone because several Christians were killed there during the year -- caught in the crossfire between Palestinian gunmen and Israeli troops, who had temporarily invaded the PA-controlled city to stop the shooting on the nearby Jewish Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo.
On Christmas Eve, Awad said, the choir from the school along with a few others will be singing in the city center. Before the trouble, choirs came from around the world to sing in Manger Square on Christmas Eve.
Despite the troubles, Christian faith seems to be growing, Awad said.
"We are finding that the churches are full," he said. "People are seeking the Lord more. In times of persecution people turn to the Lord. They have a refuge to go to and that is the Lord Jesus Christ."
Awad said he wished everyone a happy Christmas. "We pray for peace. We pray for the Jews and Arabs to get along."