Bethlehem’s rich history can be fully appreciated only by walking its streets. Every year, the city enters millions of homes worldwide through the image of the humble manger where Jesus was born, but that image does not compare to experiencing the Old City first-hand. Coming to Bethlehem is a unique experience that I would encourage everyone to pursue.
Unfortunately, while visitors to Bethlehem have increased in number during the past year, many are unable to explore the city properly. Under Israeli occupation, obstacles hindering the normal development of tourism in Palestine have prevented thousands of people from experiencing what Bethlehem has to offer.
For example, I often hear from Palestinian priests that: “In this land, we receive many tourists yet very few pilgrims.” In other words, there are more visitors interested in seeing the stones than in meeting the living stones.
This is one consequence of Israel’s monopoly over the tourism industry. Israel has little interest in encouraging visitors to interact with Palestinians or to learn about their heritage. It is hard to imagine that visitors motivated by faith or a sense of history would not want to meet the stewards of the holy sites they are visiting. Pope John Paul II said it best during his pilgrimage in 2000, when he told Palestinians during a visit to the Dheisheh refugee camp: “Probably the pastors and shepherds of Bethlehem were your predecessors, your ancestors.”