Israel’s war with Hamas is taking a huge toll on businesses that depend on Christian tourists across the Holy Land. Many of them are in the West Bank town of Bethlehem where locals heavily rely on pilgrims to sustain the local economy. Hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops are virtually empty with a significant number forced to close or lay off staff as they were still recovering from the loss of trade during the COVID pandemic.
As a result, many Palestinian families in the birthplace of Jesus have no income and some have been left homeless. Christian shop owner in Manger Square, Rony Tabash, is trusting in God to sustain and protect his family through the crisis. He told Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN): “The situation is terrible. It’s not easy at all. Every day, new challenges arise. I’ve never experienced anything like this before. Never! It’s a war. Not like a war. It is a war. There are no pilgrims. Everything is empty, there’s no one. And they say it will last until Easter.”
Mr. Tabash who sells religious items had hoped to finally pay off his debts and recover economically after the pandemic, but he now finds himself confronting a bleak reality. The absence of tourists has left the local economy in ruins, affecting all sectors. “These days, there are bombs in the sky over Bethlehem. Children are scared. My kids don’t want to be separated from our side. The town is deserted,” he said. But he continues to open his shop, located in front of the Basilica of the Nativity in a bid to support his family.
“The only thing that sustains me is faith. Without faith, I couldn’t continue, not even for a minute. We’ve lost hope. All that’s left is faith. We’re living in the place where Jesus was born, we can’t leave. If it weren’t for that, I would leave instantly,” he told ACN.
“As a Christian Palestinian my mission is to be here, even though every day new challenges come. The war has to end. We are tired. We want peace, only peace for our children and our families.” He has asked Christians across the world to join other Palestinian Christians in praying for believers impacted by the war.
“I can’t leave this. I can’t leave my father. Our family has owned this shop since 1927 when it started renting the space from the Armenian Church. My father tells me: ‘Have faith, Bethlehem is a sacred place, it won’t be touched.’ Is this place only sacred to me, to my family, to us Palestinians in the West Bank? Isn’t it a sacred place for all Christians in the world?”
“Many people have the desire to come to the Holy Land, and it’s time to help us, to be present in these holy places.” Due to travel restrictions and the danger in the region, Mr.Tabash knows that people can’t physically visit Bethlehem, but he urged them to be present in other ways. “Come with your prayers, come with your actions asking for peace, come by defending the integrity of these places. The silence scares me. Come, with your support for the Christian families in the Holy Land,” he pleaded.
Anabaptist World reports that the faculty at Bethlehem Bible College clings to the hope that their Christian friends in Gaza can hold on to life. The college is an international partner of the Mennonite Church in North America that seeks to provide Palestinians with a theological education without having to travel overseas. It is also home to the Bethlehem Institute for Peace and Justice (BIJP), a program that teaches peace and justice from a Palestinian perspective.
BIJP director Andrew F. Bush reports: “Bethlehem has been under siege. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) has closed all roads into Bethlehem, strangling its economy. With little money, families are conserving their resources. Few cars are on the road. Restaurants are closed. Schools are open intermittently. The prevailing mood in Bethlehem is one of depression and anger at what’s happening in Gaza.”
Mr. Bush and his family have opted to stay in the Holy Land. “Staying is costly. It causes great anxiety for our adult children in the States. We also must work through our moments of panic when an app on my phone alerts us to an incoming rocket. By remaining in Bethlehem, we have been able to walk with our Christian friends through these dark weeks.”