Religious leaders in the Palestinian town of Bethlehem have been forced to extend visiting hours at the Church of the Nativity to cope with the growing number of pilgrims visiting the birthplace of Jesus.
Rula Ma’ayah, Palestinian minister of tourism, told Arab News that the unprecedented decision followed a surge in the number of visitors in recent months.
“This year almost 3 million tourists and pilgrims have visited the city, and for the first time the church will remain open until 8 p.m. in winter and until January,” she said.
A Christmas tree in Bethlehem’s Manger Square will be lit on Saturday evening in presence of Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh.
Mayor of Bethlehem Tony Salman on Thursday delivered a holiday message, describing Christmas as a season for joy.
“We chose the theme of joy to show that despite the occupation we try to enjoy life,” he said. “We want to tell the world that we deserve to live in freedom.”
Hanna Issa, head of the Islamic-Christian Committee for Jerusalem, said that pilgrims and tourists are visiting Bethlehem in growing numbers.
“A study was initiated by the Ministry of Tourism and the presidential commission, and the historic decision was made to allow pilgrims who come to visit and pray to be able to do so even at late hours,” he said.
Vera Baboun, a former mayor of Bethlehem, said that overcrowding at the church had resulted in lengthy queues as pilgrims waited for hours to visit the birthplace of Jesus.
“It is very difficult to turn down pilgrims who have come from all over the world to visit the holy land. This decision will allow them to visit even if they come late to the church. Hopefully, it means that they will not have to wait long to get to the grotto.”
Baboun said that most of the 3 million visitors to the church don’t spend any time in the Palestinian city. “We wish they could stay longer,” she said.
Monjed Jado, publisher of the Bethlehem-based Palestine News Network website, said that the decision to extend the church’s opening hours was the result of coordinated work between head of the Church Commission Ramzi Khoury, Bethlehem Gov. Kamel Hamed, the Ministry of Tourism as well as Orthodox, Armenian and Catholic Church leaders in Bethlehem.