This biblical city known as the childhood home of Jesus is hoping for a Christmas miracle: the sudden appearance of tourists.
The town’s markets are stocked with Santa hats and green and red stockings but few buyers in the wake of President Trump’s Dec. 6 declaration recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. His announcement departs from an international consensus that Jerusalem’s status should be negotiated in peace talks with Palestinians.
Israel’s tiny, and shrinking, Christian minority already has been facing economic hardships, and Trump’s move has heightened their strife and deflated the season’s festive mood.
“A lot of things are missing for us this year, because of the issues with Jerusalem,” lamented Badia Basha, 66, a Christian resident.
Standing at a small table selling Christmas knickknacks outside of Mary’s Well, where Christians believe the Angel Gabriel told Mary she would give birth to the son of God, Basha noted how Trump’s declaration sparked violent protests across the region.
“Christmas is supposed to bring many performances and singers and visitors that include Christians and also Muslims and Jews, to this city, but today there is almost nothing. It is not as it really should be,” Basha said.
Last week, Nazareth Mayor Ali Salam, a Muslim, canceled a number of Christmas festivities in what he said was a protest against Trump. On Saturday, Salam told reporters that outdoor stalls, the Christmas tree lighting, and the Dec. 23 citywide parade in Nazareth would still happen as planned, and that “there are commercial interests of the city and we are used to hundreds of thousands coming for this season.”
Tourism, a critical component of Nazareth’s economy, has been weak since the 2014 Israeli war in Gaza scared foreigners from coming to this holy land.
Ronny Eid, a Christian resident and the head of the Nazareth tourism ministry, said the city has seen a number of pilgrim groups cancel their plans to arrive at Christmas.
Hany Khoury, a Christian who owns a shop selling Christmas specialties such as olive wood carvings from Bethlehem, said shop owners have also struggled in recent years to compete with Chinese competitors.
“Everyone used to buy handmade, but even with the seasonal business, the Christian market here is not large enough” to sustain local business, Khoury said. He added that it’s almost impossible to compete with Chinese merchants who come here, buy olive wood carvings depicting the Nativity and other biblical scenes, copy them at home and then sell them online at cheaper prices across the globe.
Elias Mattar, the chef at the trendy Locanda restaurant in the newly opened Ramada Nazareth Hotel, said the weeks between Dec. 15 and the beginning of the new year can translate into as much as two months’ profit and set the tone for the rest of the business year.
According to the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, Israel is expecting a spike in tourists this Christmas holiday, though it said the vast majority of Christian visitors plan to visit only the holy sites in Jerusalem.
In the winding alleys of Nazareth’s Old City the week before Christmas, there were only a handful of tourists, most of whom came from Jewish towns in Israel.
Mattar said the economic difficulties deter Christians from remaining in Nazareth, the largest Arab city in Israel. Before the Jewish state was established in 1948, this city boasted a Christian majority of more than 60%. Today, Christians comprise only 30% of the population.
The Christian exodus has been underway for decades, but accelerated in recent years because of a combination of economic hardship, low birth rates and what some say is discrimination by the Israeli government.
In October, the Greek patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos III, told Pope Francis that there is a “disturbing situation in the Holy Land” in which the “historic rights of Christians are being undermined.”
Mattar, like many Christians here, has relatives living abroad, and says that if he had the opportunity, he would leave the area.
“It’s unreal the extent to which politics enters everything here, even in Nazareth — the symbol of Christianity,” he said. “The situation is not normal.”