Mayor of Bethlehem Dr. Victor Batarseh will declare Bethlehem an open city and announce that the city is to issue a Bethlehem passport, open to anyone in the world.

Dr. Batarseh will declare this in London, where he arrives today.  The initiative is designed to transcend the imprisonment of the city by a combination of the illegal wall and militarized fences, with only two gates to the outside world.
 
Mr. Mayor travels with Leila Sansour, Chief Executive of a project called ‘Open Bethlehem’ who continues to Washington to launch the passport in the States.  “We recognize we have to act”, says Dr Batarseh. “The passport is a way to ask people to step up to the plate.  Invest in Bethlehem, bring projects to the city, or come and live among us – and you can also be a Bethlehemite.”
 
The walls and fences that encircle Bethlehem have turned this 4000 year old city into a prison for its 160,000 residents. The number of tourists visiting Bethlehem has dropped from nearly 92,000 in 2000 to 7,249 in 2004, Palestinian sources reported.  In the last five years 9.3 per cent of the Christian population of Bethlehem has emigrated to the United States and some toher European countries.  Restaurants, shops and commercial outlets have shrunk and Bethlehem’s economy is threatened.
 
The loss of Bethlehem to the world, says Leila Sansour, “would have a devastating effect on the cause of open democracy in the Middle East, on Christianity worldwide, and on the relationship between Christian nations and other countries.”
 
The Open Bethlehem initiative will issue the passport to friends of Bethlehem as part of a campaign to encourage trade partnerships, investment, tourism, events, and to attract creative opportunities to the city. The core of its message is that Bethlehem is a city of openness and diversity, with a centuries old tradition of welcoming travellers, refugees and pilgrims from across the world.
 
Open Bethlehem already has the support of international figures such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former US President Jimmy Carter; the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, His Beatitude Patriarch Michel Sabbah of Jerusalem and many other influential leaders in their sectors.  Archbishop Tutu says that ‘it is unconscionable that Bethlehem should be allowed to die slowly from strangulation’.
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