Israel is preparing for the arrival of 90,000 tourists this Christmas by promoting access to holy sites and ensuring safety for all.
Nearly 2.4 million Christian tourists are expected to visit Israel by the year’s end, according to the ministry of tourism. One-third of the Christian tourists are pilgrims visiting holy sites in the West Bank and Jerusalem.
Nazareth, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Via Dolorosa and the Mount of Olives are located in Israel. Bethlehem is in the West Bank.
Israeli security and civil administration leaders met with the head of the Franciscan Monastery, the Ambassador to the Vatican as well as the Greek Orthodox, Armenian, and Latin Patriarchs to enable complete freedom of worship and movement during the holiday season.
Israel is expediting transport and crossing arrangements so that pilgrims and visitors can participate in traditional Christmas ceremonies.
The Coordinator of the Government Activities in the Territories, Major General Eitan Dangot, is working with the Israel Police and the Israel Defense Forces to make sure the Bethlehem area crossings would be constantly open for tourists to freely enter the city during the holidays.
More than 500 exit permits were given to Christian residents from the Gaza Strip to attend Christmas festivities in Israel.
Christian residents of the West Bank are free to cross into Israel during the holidays. Additional border crossings and security restrictions have been eased to maximize freedom of worship.
In August 2010, Israel enabled Israeli tour guides to lead groups in Bethlehem to promote coexistence. The Palestinian Authority applauded the gesture.
The Israel Project (TIP) arranged a number of Christmas-themed tours and events for the press. TIP’s Christmas Kit is a compilation of interactive maps and information about Christian minority groups in Israel and the Middle East.
As opposed to other Middle Eastern countries, “practically the only place in the region where the Christian population is growing is in Israel,” reported The New York Post in December 2009.
Christians constitute about 2 percent of Israel’s overall population, and their number is steadily growing. By the end of 2009, 151,700 Christians lived in Israel, a 0.6 percent increase from the previous year.