An Orthodox Christian priest prays at the entrance of the Church of the Nativity in the biblical West Bank city of Bethlehem on April 18, 2020, while the church is closed due to a lockdown imposed to stem the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic
Christian pilgrimage sites in the Holy Land, including sites in Jesus’ birthplace of Bethlehem, will be inaccessible to foreign Christian travelers again this Christmas due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the recent surge in the omicron variant.
The Israeli government has been accused of discriminating against Christian tourists during the busy Christmas holiday season by shutting its border to foreigners but giving an exception to young Jews.
Israel has mostly restricted international tourists since March 2020, when many countries began implementing lockdown policies in response to the pandemic, and had only started admitting fully vaccinated foreign visitors in early November. With the emergence of the omicron variant, travel restrictions have been reimposed.
A ban on foreign travelers to Israel was again instituted at the end of last month for two weeks and was later extended. In addition to banning foreign travel, Israeli officials have also restricted residents from traveling to several foreign countries to curb the spread of omicron.
While Bethlehem lies in the Palestinian-controlled West Bank, the only way for most foreign pilgrims to access the town is by flying into Israel.
Bethlehem is a popular destination for tourists over the holiday as many Christian pilgrims visit the ancient site, notably Manger Square.
The now-crippled tourism industry in Bethlehem and other sites throughout the Holy Land have been devastated. This will mark the second consecutive year that foreigners will not be able to visit the region.
In mid-December, Israeli officials made an exception to the foreign travelers’ ban for young Jews worldwide who want to travel as part of an exception for “birthright.” But restrictions still remain in place for other foreigners, including Christian pilgrims who want to travel to historic towns roamed by Jesus during his earthly ministry. Those include Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth.
A spokesperson and adviser to churches in the Holy Land, Wadi Abunassar, took to social media to claim that various Christian denominations are not happy with what they view as discrimination against Christian pilgrims.
“Racist discrimination should never be accepted in any way!” he wrote in a Facebook post, as reported by The Associated Press. “I urge the Israeli authorities to treat all those who want to visit the country equally without any discrimination between religion.”
An official with the Catholic Church told the AP that the church has requested Israel’s Tourism Ministry make an exception for Christian pilgrims during the Christmas season.