Every year Makka receives two million Muslim pilgrims, while the Kumbh Mela at Allahabad in India can boast a gathering of 70 million Hindus. So going purely by numbers, Bethlehem should be currently overwhelmed by visitors pulled from the world's two billion Christians.

 

It is not.

 

In 2004, according to a UN report published that year, the average number of visitors to Bethlehem per month was just over 7000, a drop from more than 84,000 in 2000.

 

Leila Sansour, Bethlehem native and documentary filmmaker, believes the "little town" is disappearing from people's consciousness, and perhaps soon, off the map altogether.

 

She says the alarming drop in religious visitors led her to create Open Bethlehem, an organisation that aims to bring the world's focus back on the town of Jesus Christ's birth and the Israeli wall which, she says, is slowly choking it.

 

"The Open Bethlehem project is an international public relations campaign to re-brand Palestine," says Sansour, who has brought together various Bethlehem-based organisations in support for the venture.

 

She believes Bethlehem is uniquely placed to speak for Palestine in a way that other cities cannot.

 

Sansour told Aljazeera.net: "Bethlehem defies a lot of the stereotypes. Very few people imagine that Palestine is a multi-faith and multi-ethnic society. Very few people would believe that a sweet little town like Bethlehem, today, is a prison."

 

Compassion Fatigue

 

Brother Fergus McArdle, Vice-President for Academic Affairs at Bethlehem University, says: "Why the international community has to date shown little interest in the situation baffles me."

 

McArdle suspects that while people respond compassionately to one-off disasters such as the Tsunami or Hurricane Katrina, they might have grown weary of situations which have been in the news for so long without any clear resolution in sight.

 

Dr Victor Batarseh, the Mayor,
says the city is under siege

So has Bethlehem fallen through the cracks of the wider Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

 

Christiane Dabdoub-Nasser from Bethlehem's Centre for Cultural Heritage Preservation says:"People are careful about touching issues where Israel is concerned or involved."

 

She believes part of the international recognition problem is that, for many Westerners, Bethlehem belongs to the realm of myths and its plight is not easily tangible.

 

She adds that a discussion on Bethlehem is overshadowed by the political discourse on conflicts in the Middle East.

 

Mayor

 

But for Bethlehem mayor Dr Victor Batarseh the most pressing issue is what he calls the siege of the holy city.

 

He told Aljazeera.net: "The biggest threat facing Bethlehem is the continued Israeli occupation of our Holy Town and the rest of the Palestinian territories."

He says Israeli security policies prevent freedom of movement and prohibit pilgrims and tourists of easy access to the town's holy places.

 

"The separation wall that strangles our town and isolates it from the outside world [is] affecting all aspects of our daily life."

 

But not everyone agrees that Israeli policies are alone to blame for the town's downturn.

 

Abraham H. Foxman, the National Director of the Anti-Defamation league responding to the UN report said: "To blame the economic and social decline of Bethlehem solely on the security measures employed by Israel with no consideration of the Palestinian terror that necessitated these actions is shocking and flagrantly biased."

 

"Israel acted only in reaction to the terrorism confronting it, it has taken reasonable measures to try and ensure the economic and social normalcy for Palestinians."

 

Tourists

Sansour (L) believes problem is in
poor marketing and safety fears

Despite the debate on who is to blame for the old town's isolation, Open Bethlehem is hoping to reverse a trend that has seen thousands visiting lesser religious sites such as Lourdes every year while shunning the actual town of Christ's birth.

 

Sansour believes the problem lies in a mixture of poor marketing and safety fears – particularly when visitors are warned by their governments to avoid the entire area.

 

She insists Bethlehem is a safe place to visit.

 

As an initiative to draw more international support, the Bethlehem passport has been created. The document is a "badge of honour" that will be given to those who, as Sansour says, "help us on this journey." 

 

One of the most recent high-profile recipients of the passport was Pope Benedict XVI.

 

Sansour says: "It (the passport) came about because we wanted to act like a nation or more precisely with an aspiration to have the right to self-determination."  

 

"Bethlehem has always been an open city – a world city – and we want the world to see it like that. We want to say that everyone is welcome here."

 

Keeping Bethlehem alive

 

Samira Hassassian, Chief Programme Officer at the Bethlehem Peace Center, wants the new project to help "keep Bethlehem alive".

 

Hassassian said: "I hope people will come and invest in Bethlehem, bring projects and events and live and continue to live in this holy town. We need to act in response to the emergency situation in the district, otherwise people will lose hope."

 

Sansour is realistic about the future – she's not expecting the wall to come down anytime soon – but she says part of the gusto for her organisation is the fact that Bethlehem is a key Palestinian city.

 

 She said: "If we start losing our important cities it is very difficult to conjure up a vision of our national future."

 

"I have never seen people here more depressed than today. We need to create a space of hope."