As churches look ahead to celebrating the birth of Jesus, a charity has warned that the pandemic has left pregnant mothers in Bethlehem wondering how they can afford their medical care this Christmas.

After 20 months without pilgrims, Christian families reliant on the tourism trade have been forced into debt for everyday items, with almost 40% of Bethlehem families buying groceries on credit or relying on food parcels.

As Bethlehem enters its second Christmas with very few visitors, there are no savings left for maternal healthcare or medical emergencies, and medical costs are pushing families further into debt.

Ecumenical charity, Friends of the Holy Land (FHL), is appealing to churches to support pregnant mothers with their medical bills and other families facing costly treatment as people living in the Bethlehem experience ongoing levels of high uncertainty and unemployment.

FHL CEO Brendan Metcalfe said: “Remembering the birth of Christ is such a powerful, moving celebration for Christians. But this Christmas we are also urging people to remember the mothers, like Mary, who are preparing to give birth in the Holy Land today.

“The total collapse of the tourism industry in the place where Jesus was born has left mothers filled with anxiety. A regular hospital birth means a bill of around £360, or £800 for a straightforward caesarean – these figures are way out of reach for the vast majority of families.

“Every week, our Holy Land office hears more stories of people needing urgent treatment – from dentistry to cancer – that they simply can’t afford. These Christian families who live in such an unstable land have been left with next to nothing since Covid shut their livelihoods down.”

Nursery worker Mary Abu Hanna was faced with a bill of £1,200 this autumn – almost three times the family’s monthly income – after she needed to have a caesarean section to delivery her baby boy and a hernia operation at the same time. Her husband, Samer, works at the Church of the Nativity where in pre-Covid times he was responsible for guiding and helping tourists.

After a year with no tourists, the family began to fall behind on rent, electricity and food bills and faced concerns about how they would finance ante-natal care and the delivery of their son.

FHL heard about their situation and paid over a third of their hospital bill to help limit the financial impact.

Mary said: “The economic situation is very different because of Covid-19.

“I really would like to thank Friends of the Holy Land for its moral and financial support and for helping me with my surgery fees. Thank you so much.”

Mother-of-two Nariman Sleibi is expecting a Christmas baby, due on 20 December, but financial worries cast a shadow over the joy of a new arrival. She says: “There is barely any work in Bethlehem. I have kids who need fees for their Christian school, sometimes they get sick and need medicine, there are bills, and we can’t afford it all every time. We are going through tough times and situations.”

To find out more about how FHL is supporting struggling Christian families, or to donate, visit www.friendsoftheholyland.org.uk/Appeal/christmas . A donation of £48 could fund three check-ups for a mother or newborn or £100 could help with the cost of a baby’s delivery in Bethlehem.