Holy Week in the Holy Land: Return of Pilgrims Is a Welcome Sight
Only relatively small numbers have arrived so far compared to pre-pandemic numbers, but their presence provides cautious optimism for the tourist-dependent local Christian community.
BETHLEHEM — For the first time since COVID-19 precipitated a two-year ban on tourism, Holy Land Christians are hopeful that the worst is finally behind them.
The March 2020 decision by Israel and the Palestinian Authority to hermetically seal their borders to prevent the virus’ spread was a tremendous blow to local Christians, the majority of whom earn their livelihoods through Christian tourism.
In contrast to the first Holy Week of the pandemic, when Israel and the Palestinian-ruled West Bank were under a full lockdown, and last year, when only local Christians were present, Holy Week this year was celebrated by a small number of foreigners as well as locals.
The many events that marked Palm Sunday in Jerusalem, which this year fell on April 10, were held “in a climate of rebirth and hope,” the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land noted on its website.
For the first time since the pandemic, the solemn Mass held at the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, presided by the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, included pilgrims as well as locals. The traditional procession on the Mount of Olives drew about 5,000 joyful people of faith.
In his message for the Palm Sunday Procession, the patriarch celebrated the return of pilgrims from near and far.
“We come from many parts of the Holy Land: from Palestine, from Israel, we also have representatives from Jordan and Cyprus. After the pandemic, we also have with us many pilgrims from different parts of the world, and we greet their return with joy: Thank you for remembering us and returning. We have been waiting and praying for your return. And now your presence brings us hope and joy, it will bring smiles to many families.”
Father Rami Asakrieh, parish priest of St. Catherine Church in Bethlehem, said that the pandemic has pushed many families in his parish to the breaking point financially.
“Christians in the Bethlehem area are employed mostly in tourism while others work in Jerusalem. So you can imagine the suffering when there were no tourists and no one could receive a permit to enter Jerusalem,” Father Asakrieh said.
The families he knows have used up most or all of their savings, and they are in debt.
“Rent still needed to be paid, and also tuition,” he said. “We’re in a period of recovering and hoping.”
Tour Operator’s Perspective
Seated in the lobby of the Casa Nova Palace Hotel in Bethlehem, Ihab Sabbara, an Orthodox Christian tour operator and tour guide, said that while things appear to be on the upswing, it’s too soon celebrate.
Sabbara recalled how Israel very briefly opened the country to tourists in November, only to close the borders in December when the number of COVID cases began to soar again.
“I had groups coming for Christmas but they were forced to cancel and now it’s difficult to convince them to come. They’re worried about cancellation fees and getting their tickets reimbursed,” Sabbara said.
As it stands now, mostly small groups of pilgrims are returning, riding in minibuses rather than the large tour buses that filled the parking lots near Manger Square pre-pandemic.
The Israel Ministry of Tourism estimated that some 30,000 Christian, Jewish and Muslim tourists would arrive in Israel during the week leading up to Easter Sunday, which is also Passover and Ramadan.
That’s far fewer than the hundreds of thousands who traditionally visit the Holy Land for the three holidays.
Sabbara believes that the deteriorating security situation in recent weeks, which has seen several Palestinian terror attacks against Israelis, and the shooting deaths of Palestinians by Israel Defense Forces soldiers — many but not all during violent clashes — could hinder the tourism industry’s recovery.
“Pilgrims want to pray without fear, but the sight of armed security forces isn’t reassuring,” he said.
Franciscan Father Ibrahim Faltas, director of the Casa Nova hotel in Jerusalem, is also praying that tourism isn’t side-tracked.
“I think people are concerned about the situation here, the situation in Ukraine, but they also yearn to visit here, where Jesus lived and preached,” Father Faltas said.
While “thanks to God” the Franciscan-run hotel is full in April, Father Faltas said, it has far fewer reservations for May, June and July.
‘There Is Always Hope’
Shukri Batarse, a 77-year-old Catholic and partner in the Roman Canal Souvenir shop on Manger Street, acknowledged the deteriorating security situation, but noted that unrest is nothing new in this part of the world.
“There have been attacks, and counterattacks, for decades. In truth, Bethlehem is a very safe place,” he insisted.
Batarse said he’s heartened by the slow but steady return of pilgrims. His shop, which is located on the bustling main street leading to Manger Square, was closed for two solid years due to the pandemic.
During better times, the store was able to support 50 to 60 people. Today, far fewer.
“My son, who is a lawyer, and my daughter, who is a surgeon, supported us. Were it not for them, I might not have survived,” Batarse said.
Watching a group of American tourists walk up the steep hill toward the Church of the Nativity, Batarse broke into a smile.
“There is always hope,” he said. “No one can live without hope.”