Pilgrims from all over the world are once again flocking by the thousands to Bethlehem, on the West Bank, to celebrate Christmas in complete freedom since the lifting of health restrictions that had been put in place during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The resumption of Christmas pilgrimages gives the town of Christ's birth a festive atmosphere at the end of 2022, as the faithful gather by the thousands near the Church of the Nativity to kneel before the silver star which marks the exact place of the earthly birth of the Incarnate Word.
A few kilometers from the Nativity Grotto, the iron gate that separates Jerusalem from Bethlehem opens at the end of the morning of December 24, 2022, to let through the official convoy heading for Nativity Square.
Leaving his vehicle, Msgr. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Latin Catholic Patriarch of Jerusalem, was first welcomed by the religious and civil authorities, to the cheers of the faithful, before presiding over the traditional procession towards the Nativity Grotto.
The Palestinian Catholic scouts are part of the procession, playing the bagpipes at the head of a joyful procession that rushes through the famous Star Street, the one that Our Lady and Saint Joseph took two millennia ago: a procession that hasn’t been seen for two years, thanks to Covid-19.
“Christmas is our city’s holiday, and we have put a lot of time and effort into preparing for it. We wanted to have international participation and to organize shows for children with singers from France, South Africa, and Malta,” proudly stated Hanna Hanania, the mayor of Bethlehem.
Although their numbers have not reached pre-pandemic levels, the return of the pilgrims has visibly boosted the morale of the inhabitants of Bethlehem.
“The message of Christmas is a message of peace, and it is possible to change things,” recalled the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, who promises to be “very clear in what must be said or done, in order to preserve the importance of unity and reconciliation among all,” alluding to the tense context between the Jewish State and the Palestinian Authority, of which Christians most often bear the brunt.
If the pilgrims are there, the number of Christians living in Bethlehem has been dwindling over the years: for lack of space, also for lack of land, often monopolized by the Israeli colonies which surround the city of Christ’s birth.