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Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem are intimate this year

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Bethlehem is celebrating a bittersweet Christmas. The Palestinian city known to be the biblical birthplace of Jesus is eager for tourism, and the Holy Land's been almost completely closed to pilgrims during these last two years because of the pandemic. But the city still insists on holding some big holiday celebrations, and NPR's Daniel Estrin is spending Christmas in Bethlehem and joins us. Daniel, thanks so much for being with us.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: My pleasure.

SIMON: And tell us about the atmosphere in this extraordinary place today.

ESTRIN: It's lovely, really. The sun came out a little bit this morning, and even though there are no pilgrims from abroad, there are many Christians who are working or studying in Israel, and they are in Bethlehem today. I'm, right now, sitting in a guest house right next to the Church of the Nativity, which marks Jesus' birthplace. And this morning, I met a Filipino caregiver who lives with an elderly Israeli, and he was really moved to be here. His brother asked him to pray on his behalf that he doesn't catch COVID. And last night I ran into Miss Vietnam, actually. She was in Israel for the Miss Universe competition last week, but she and her entourage could not get back to Vietnam easily because of pandemic restrictions, so here she is. They came to Bethlehem.

SIMON: How's Bethlehem fared during the pandemic?

ESTRIN: This city the rest of the year is sleepwalking. There is a lot of unemployment. Bethlehem already is crippled by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and by Israeli restrictions on who can enter Israel to work. So the city usually runs on pilgrims and visitors coming to see Jesus' birthplace. For the last two years, because of the pandemic, Israel has almost completely shut the borders to visitors. And so now omicron cases are slowly beginning to rise in Israel. They're preparing for an outbreak in the coming weeks. And so Bethlehemites (ph) I've met have said they're just praying for a miracle, and they don't know when they'll see pilgrims and when they'll have business again.

SIMON: Daniel, despite restrictions and all the tough times, how are Palestinians celebrating Christmas?

ESTRIN: Well, I saw a lot of Muslim locals taking pictures in front of the big Christmas tree in Manger Square last night. And today, I saw Palestinian Christians in their holiday best, and they were going to Christmas lunch with their families. And, you know, what's so special about Bethlehem, in my view, is that it's a mosaic of many different Christian denominations. So for instance, last night I was at a Syriac Catholic Mass, and I recorded chanting in Arabic.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in Arabic).

ESTRIN: And they also pray in Aramaic, which is the language of Jesus. And Bethlehem actually celebrates not one Christmas, but three Christmases because of the different Christian religious calendars. So they're going to be celebrating Orthodox Christmas and Armenian Christmas next month.

SIMON: And you were at the midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity. What was that like?

ESTRIN: The pews were filled. Most people were wearing masks. And this was the second Christmas that the Palestinian president did not attend midnight Mass because of COVID. He's in his 80s. So he sent his prime minister. He was ushered in just before the stroke of midnight. And at midnight, the church bells rang out to commemorate Jesus' birth.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHURCH BELLS RINGING)

ESTRIN: And then the top Roman Catholic official in the Holy Land delivered a homily. And he said, with the pandemic and with all the political crises in the region, we are faced with a, quote, "Babylon" of confusing messages and advice. And he said that we should all face the future with confidence. He said faith and hope cannot be separated.

SIMON: NPR's Daniel Estrin in Bethlehem. Thanks so much.

ESTRIN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.