After eight bleak years, Jesus' birthplace finally has a Christmas season to cheer about.This news does not sit well with those who would rather see Bethlehem in misery, so they could blame Jews for Christian suffering. Of course, some may choose to ignore the good news:
Hotels are booked solid through January, Manger Square is bustling with tourists, and Israeli and Palestinian forces are working to make things go smoothly.
Elias Al-Araj's 200-room hotel is fully booked for the season, and he plans to open a 100-room annex. He says he already has bookings through July.
"This year, business was great," he said.
Bethlehem's economic fortunes are closely tied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Tourism blossomed in the 1990s, when peace hopes were alive, but was crushed by the outbreak of fighting in 2000. Christmas after Christmas, tourists were scared off by Palestinian violence and Israeli travel restrictions.
With calm gradually returning to the West Bank, Bethlehem has again become a magnet for Christmas pilgrims.
"It's a difference between heaven and earth," said entrepreneur Mike Kanawati, who is so optimistic he's opening a new restaurant near the Church of the Nativity.
Palestinian officials say that 1.3 million tourists have visited the West Bank this year, nearly double last year's level. The total for 2008 could rise to 1.6 million. The tourism boom has created 12,000 new jobs, said Riad Malki, the Palestinian information minister.
Bethlehem's 19 hotels are fully booked through January, said Mayor Victor Batarseh. He said he expects 30,000 visitors on Christmas Eve alone, compared with 22,000 last year, with about 5,000 more expected during Orthodox rites in January.
Batarseh said he hopes the signs of recovery will persuade more Bethlehemites to stay in their town. In recent years, growing numbers, particularly Christians, have emigrated.
"Calm and an increase in tourism will create more job opportunities and encourage families to stay in the city," said Batarseh, who is Christian. Officials say 40 percent of the town's 32,000 residents are Christian, down from 90 percent in the 1950s. The rest are Muslim.
A vicar has banned the Christmas carol O Little Town of Bethlehem from his services after witnessing the strife-torn state of Jesus's birthplace.The good vicar seems to know exactly who to blame for Bethlehem's problems, and they are those Jews from Russia, not the Muslims from Hamas.
The Rev Stephen Coulter has decided that the words 'How still we see thee lie' are too far removed from the reality of Bethlehem today and should not be sung in his parish.He toured Bethlehem in a recent pilgrimage to the Holy Land and was shocked at how the Arab-Israeli conflict that has raged around the West Bank town has decimated its population, wrecked its economy and hit tourism.
'The Christians we stayed with consider themselves descendants of the very shepherds who were keeping watch over flocks by night 2,000 years ago.
'Can you imagine how they feel being stopped by security guards, Jews from Russia, who have been in the country for just five years and who have all the freedoms denied those who have been there for centuries?'They ask how the Jews who were treated so badly in the Second World War now inflict the same treatment on others.'
Even though the amount of anti-Christian bigotry by West Bank Muslims has been well-documented and many Christians have spoken out about how they live in fear of their Muslim neighbors, even though Bethlehem's Muslim population continues to increase even as its Christian population continues to dwindle, even though Muslims have been burning down churches in the West Bank and Gaza, even though we have documented threats by Fatah against Christian pilgrims from as far back as 1967 - Coulter and his ilk will always blame the Jews.