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The virus hangs over Christmas festivities in Bethlehem again

Travel restrictions imposed by Israel – the main entry point for foreign visitors to the occupied West Bank, home to Jesus’ traditional birthplace – have kept international tourists away for a second year. The ban on nearly all non-Israeli travelers is aimed at slowing the spread of the highly contagious variant of omicron.

Instead, authorities relied on the small Christian community in the Holy Land to boost morale.

It was a theme seen around the world as revelers, weary of nearly two years of lockdowns and security restrictions, searched for ways to revert to rituals that were canceled last year, while still celebrating in full. security at a time of increasing cases.

“We cannot let the virus take our lives when we are healthy,” said Rosalia Lopes, a retired Portuguese government worker who was doing last-minute shopping in the coastal town of Cascais.

“We have to take precautions, of course, but we’re really looking forward to it,” she said.

But vacation travel was hit when three major airlines, Lufthansa, United and Delta, canceled dozens of flights due to staff shortages largely linked to the omicron variant. And church services have been cut back in Germany and the United States.

In the UK, where the omicron is tearing people apart, some places of worship were hoping to continue.

At St. Paul’s Old Ford, an Anglican church in east London, priests planned to hold services on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, although this decision is constantly being reviewed. The clergy tested themselves for COVID-19 regularly and limited the number on each service to ensure others could move forward even if one tested positive.

But to protect the parishioners, the church abandoned its crib.

“You may have to cancel the service, but you cannot cancel Christmas,” said Reverend April Keech, an associate priest. “You can’t stop love. The love is still there.

That spirit was also alive in Bethlehem, where Mayor Anton Salman said the city was optimistic 2021 would be better than Christmas last year, when even local residents stayed at home due to lockdown restrictions and marching bands marched through empty streets.

This year, hundreds of people gathered in the city’s central Manger Square as a line of bagpipe and drum groups marched through the area. Later, Latin Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the highest Roman Catholic clergyman in the Holy Land, greeted supporters as his motorcade passed through the city.

“This year we see a lot of people, a lot of people and a lot of joy,” he said before entering the Church of the Nativity to prepare for midnight mass. The church is built over the cave where Christians believe Jesus was born.

Before the pandemic, Bethlehem hosted thousands of Christian pilgrims from all over the world, bringing a heavy dose of holiday spirit to the city and a huge shock to the local economy.

In early November, Israel lifted a one-and-a-half-year ban that had barred most foreign tourists from entering the region. But weeks later, he was forced to reimpose the restrictions as the omicron variant began to spread around the world.

Tourism is the lifeblood of Bethlehem’s economy, and the lack of visitors has hit hotels, restaurants and gift shops particularly hard.

“Under normal conditions for this time of year, I usually have a 20-meter queue outside,” said Adil Abu Nayaf, owner of an empty food stand in Manger Square.

Those in attendance tried to make the most of a difficult situation. Billy Stuart, an employee of the British consulate in Jerusalem, said his experience in Bethlehem was uplifting, despite the small crowd.

“The parade is amazing and I didn’t realize there were so many Palestinian bagpipes,” he said.

Celebrations in Europe, where infections are on the rise in many countries, have also been more subdued – but are moving forward.

Parisians lined up in chocolate shops, farmers’ markets – and testing centers – across the French capital. France has seen a record number of daily COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations have increased, but the government has refrained from imposing curfews, closures or other restrictions on the holidays.

Fabienne Maksimovic, 55, was standing in line in a Parisian pharmacy while waiting to be tested. “It affects our enthusiasm for celebrating Christmas, it makes us a little sad. But at least we are sure not to contaminate or get infected. We will all do the test in our family, ”she said.

As Spain returned to mandatory face covering outdoors on Friday, 19-year-old student Andrés Pérez and a group of volunteers turned out to provide homeless masks and a hot breakfast.

“It’s hard to do (wear the mask), but it’s better for all of us,” said Pérez, whose band brought a guitar to sing Christmas carols to the homeless.

In Germany, worshipers faced a multitude of health restrictions and attendance limits.

Frankfurt Cathedral, which can accommodate 1,200 people, offered only 137 remote seats, reserved days in advance. Singing was only allowed through masks. In some areas, churches required proof of vaccination or testing in addition to strict capacity limits and masking.

A line wrapped halfway around Cologne’s huge cathedral, not for midnight mass but for vaccinations in an adjacent church hall, the DPA news agency reported. The offer of gunfire was a sign of “caring for the neighbor” that was in line with the Christmas message, cathedral provost Guido Assmann said.

Many churches in the United States have canceled in-person services, including the Washington National Cathedral in the nation’s capital and the historic Old South Church in Boston, while others have planned outdoor celebrations or a mix. of worship online and in person.

In France, some celebrated by visiting relatives in hospital. In the Mediterranean city of Marseille, the intensive care unit of the Timone hospital is welcoming more and more COVID-19 patients in recent days.

Amélie Khayat visits her husband Ludo, 41, daily, who is recovering from spending 24 days in a coma and on a ventilator. They touched their heads as she sat on his bed, and now that he’s strong enough to stand up, he stood up to give her a goodbye hug.

Outside, a medical worker put the latest decorations on the ICU Christmas tree.


Associated Press journalists Danica Kirka in London, Barry Hatton in Lisbon, Aritz Parra in Madrid, David McHugh in Frankfurt, Germany, Daniel Cole in Marseille in France and David Crary in New York contributed.

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