A Christian living in Bethlehem has recounted how war, disease and economic crisis are hitting the faithful in the place where Christ was born.
Speaking to Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) Rony Tabash, a member of a Christian family that has lived in Bethlehem for generations, described how the current conflict is directly impacting the Christian community in the West Bank.
Mr Tabash said: “The situation is terrible, it’s not easy at all. Every day, new challenges arise. I’ve never experienced anything like this before, never! It’s a war, not like a war, it is a war.”
Mr Tabash, the owner of a shop that sells religious items in Bethlehem’s Manger Square, had hoped to finally pay off his debts and recover economically after the COVID-19 pandemic, but he now finds himself confronting a bleak reality.
The absence of pilgrims has left the local economy in ruins, affecting all sectors that rely on religious tourism, from hotels and restaurants to olive-wood craftsmen and souvenir sellers.
He stressed the importance of pilgrims to the Christian community in Bethlehem and added that the lack of visitors has left many families “jobless and hopeless.”
Mr Tabash said: “There are no pilgrims – everything is empty, there’s no one. And they say it will last until Easter.”
He also expressed concern for the safety of his family and other citizens of Bethlehem.
He told ACN: “These days, there are bombs in the sky over Bethlehem – children are scared, my kids don’t want to be separated from our side.”
Mr Tabash also highlighted the additional difficulties experienced by those who “due to the COVID pandemic, and the absence of pilgrims during that long time in the West Bank, sought work in Jerusalem. Now the checkpoints are closed, and entry permits for Palestinians have been blocked.”
The few who have dual nationality are leaving because they have lost hope.
He said: “A friend of mine who had a small bus business is leaving the Holy Land this weekend.”
He added: “I keep opening my shop every day, I go to the square, in front of the Basilica of the Nativity, and people ask me why I’m going; I’m the only one opening the shop.
“The only thing that sustains me is faith, without faith, I couldn’t continue, not even for a minute. We’ve lost hope – all that’s left is faith.”
Mr Tabash stressed that his family planned to stay in Bethlehem.
He said: “I can’t leave this – I can’t leave my father. Our family has owned this shop since 1927 when it started renting the space from the Armenian Church. My father tells me, ‘Have faith, Bethlehem is a sacred place, it won’t be touched.’
“Yes, I will stay because it’s a sacred place; we’re living in the place where Jesus was born; we can’t leave; if it weren’t for that, I would leave instantly.”
“But as a Christian Palestinian my mission is to be here, even though every day new challenges come. The war has to end. We are tired – we want peace, only peace for our children and our families.”.
Speaking to ACN, Mr Tabash made an appeal to preserve the sacred place where Jesus was born.
He said: “Is this place only sacred to me, to my family, to us Palestinians in the West Bank? Isn’t it a sacred place for all Christians in the world?
“Many people have the desire to come to the Holy Land, and it’s time to help us, to be present in these holy places.”
Due to travel restrictions and the danger in the region, Mr Tabash knows that people can’t physically visit Bethlehem, but he urged them to be present in other ways.
He said: “Come with your prayers, come with your actions asking for peace, come by defending the integrity of these places. The silence scares me. Come, with your support for the Christian families in the Holy Land.”