Bethlehem church extends hours amid pilgrim surge

A fragment of a wooden relic, reputed to be from Jesus’ manger.
Updated 30 November 2019

Bethlehem church extends hours amid pilgrim surge

  • A Christmas tree in Bethlehem’s Manger Square will be lit on Saturday evening

AMMAN: Religious leaders in the Palestinian town of Bethlehem have been forced to extend visiting hours at the Church of the Nativity to cope with the growing number of pilgrims visiting the birthplace of Jesus.

Rula Ma’ayah, Palestinian minister of tourism, told Arab News that the unprecedented decision followed a surge in the number of visitors in recent months.

“This year almost 3 million tourists and pilgrims have visited the city, and for the first time the church will remain open until 8 p.m. in winter and until January,” she said.

A Christmas tree in Bethlehem’s Manger Square will be lit on Saturday evening in presence of Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh.

Mayor of Bethlehem Tony Salman on Thursday delivered a holiday message, describing Christmas as a season for joy.

“We chose the theme of joy to show that despite the occupation we try to enjoy life,” he said. “We want to tell the world that we deserve to live in freedom.” 

Hanna Issa, head of the Islamic-Christian Committee for Jerusalem, said that pilgrims and tourists are visiting Bethlehem in growing numbers.

“A study was initiated by the Ministry of Tourism and the presidential commission, and the historic decision was made to allow pilgrims who come to visit and pray to be able to do so even at late hours,” he said.

Vera Baboun, a former mayor of Bethlehem, said that overcrowding at the church had resulted in lengthy queues as pilgrims waited for hours to visit the birthplace of Jesus.

This year almost 3 million tourists and pilgrims have visited the city, and for the first time the church will remain open until 8 p.m. in winter and until January.

Rula Ma’ayah, Palestinian minister of tourism

“It is very difficult to turn down pilgrims who have come from all over the world to visit the holy land. This decision will allow them to visit even if they come late to the church. Hopefully, it means that they will not have to wait long to get to the grotto.”

Baboun said that most of the 3 million visitors to the church don’t spend any time in the Palestinian city. “We wish they could stay longer,” she said.

Monjed Jado, publisher of the Bethlehem-based Palestine News Network website, said that the decision to extend the church’s opening hours was the result of coordinated work between head of the Church Commission Ramzi Khoury, Bethlehem Gov. Kamel Hamed, the Ministry of Tourism as well as Orthodox, Armenian and Catholic church leaders in Bethlehem.

However, the joyful spirit of Christmas is unlikely to be felt in one Palestinian household.

Hind Al-Aboudi, wife of US citizen Ubai Al-Aboudi, told Arab News that she will put up the family Christmas tree along with her three young boys but without her husband, a Palestinian-American scientist who has been held in Israel’s Ofer Prison since Nov. 18 without charge.

“More than 1,200 academics and scientists from around the world, including Nobel peace laureates, have called on Israel to release my husband,” she said.


UN says Libyan sides sign countrywide cease-fire deal

Updated 55 min 18 sec ago

UN says Libyan sides sign countrywide cease-fire deal

  • Libya is split between a UN-supported government in the capital, Tripoli, and rival authorities based in the east
  • Libya’s prized light crude has long featured in the country’s civil war, with rival militias and foreign powers jostling for control of Africa’s largest oil reserves

GENEVA: The United Nations said Friday that the two sides in Libyan military talks had reached a “historic achievement” with a permanent cease-fire agreement across the war-torn North African country.
After mediation this week led by UN envoy for Libya Stephanie Turco Williams, the 5+5 Joint Military Commission reached what the UN called an “important turning point toward peace and stability in Libya.”
Details were not immediately available, but the two sides were taking part in a signing ceremony in Geneva on Friday morning.
Libya is split between a UN-supported government in the capital, Tripoli, and rival authorities based in the east. The two sides are backed by an array of local militias as well as regional and foreign powers. The country was plunged into chaos after the 2011 NATO-backed uprising that toppled and killed longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi.
“The road to a permanent cease-fire deal was often long and difficult,” Williams, a former US State Department official, said in Arabic at the signing ceremony.
“Before us is a lot of work in the coming days and weeks in order to implement the commitments of the agreement,” she said. “It is essential to continue work as quickly as possible in order to alleviate the many problems due to this conflict facing the Libyan people.”
“We have to give people hope of a better future,” Williams added. She expressed hope the agreement will succeed “in ending the suffering of Libyans and allowing those displaced by the conflict to return to their homes.”
Ali Abushahma, the head of the delegation and a field commander for the UN-supported administration in Tripoli, said: “We have had enough suffering, enough bloodshed ... We hope we will change the suffering on all the territories of Libya, especially in the south.”
“I appeal to all Libya: Be one hand,” he said, warning about polarization by factions.
The meetings this week mark the fourth round of talks involving the Joint Military Commission under Williams’ watch. The Geneva-based military talks come ahead of a political forum in Tunisia in November. That forum aims to “generate consensus on a unified governance framework and arrangements that will lead to the holding of national elections,” the UN mission said.
On Wednesday, Williams had said the two warring factions agreed on issues that “directly impact the lives and welfare of the Libyan people,” citing agreements to open air and land routes in the country, to work to ease inflammatory rhetoric in Libyan media, and to help kickstart Libya’s vital oil industry.
Libya’s prized light crude has long featured in the country’s civil war, with rival militias and foreign powers jostling for control of Africa’s largest oil reserves.
Last month, the two sides reached preliminary agreements to exchange prisoners and open up air and land transit across the country’s divided territory. This breakthrough also accompanied the resumption of oil production after a months-long blockade by powerful tribes allied with military commander Khalifa Haftar, the leader of the eastern-based forces.
Haftar’s forces launched an offensive in April 2019 to try and capture Tripoli, the seat of the UN-supported government in the west. But his campaign collapsed in June.
Fighting has since died down amid international pressure on both sides to avert an attack on the strategic city of Sirte, the gateway to Libya’s major oil export terminals.