Dec. 4 (UPI) -- Christmas celebrations are underway in Bethlehem this week without tourists and pilgrims due to COVID-19 restrictions, leaving the Biblical town where Christians believe Jesus was born quiet during the holidays.
A Christmas tree has been erected in Manger Square outside the Church of Nativity in the West Bank city and will be lit on Saturday with only some religious leaders in attendance, Bethlehem Mayor Anton Salman said in a virtual news conference Thursday.
The Church of the Nativity has always been a powerful draw for an economically distressed part of the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Some 1.5 million tourists visited last year, waiting in line more than two hours to descend into the grotto to the site believed to be where Jesus was born.
The city expected more than 2 million visitors this holiday season, but international tourists have not been allowed to enter Israel or Palestinian territories since March.
Salman announced last month that the Christmas celebration would be held virtually due to the pandemic. Bethlehem has been one of the most-affected West Bank cities and new cases were exceeding 50 per day when the decision was made.
Two days later, the Palestinian Authority announced a two-week lockdown in all its territories.
"We will celebrate Christmas this year virtually, from a distance," Salman said. "We will not risk the lives of our people in order to be festive. Life and health of people are more important for us and gathering of people in the streets will increase the risk of infection."
The decision means 7,000 laborers will be out of work during the season and dozens of hotels and hundreds of souvenir shops, restaurant and handcraft factories will be closed.
The official Christmas celebration began in Bethlehem last weekend when Father Francesco Patton, the Custos of the Holy Land, arrived at the Church of Nativity. Usually a highly festive occasion, this year he was met only by a smattering of officials and journalists.
Palestinian officials will meet with church leaders on Dec. 14 to decide how Christmas Eve services and festivities will be held, Salman said.
UPI's Debbie Hill contributed to this story