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Volume 2, Number 47              January 5 - 11, 2003            Quezon City, Philippines

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Little Christmas cheer in Bethlehem


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Bethlehem is in subdued mood as Christians celebrate Christmas in the traditional birthplace of Jesus.

This year Manger Square is lit up by headlights rather than a twinkling Christmas tree, as cars and taxis used it as a parking spot.

" Bethlehem is a sad city " Hanna Nasser, Bethlehem mayor.

Instead of the thousands of pilgrims who packed the town for Christmas Eve celebrations before the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, began in September 2000, there were scattered groups of people wandering about in the gloomy cold and rain.

Israel, which has occupied the city for much of the year, has withdrawn its troops to the outskirts of the city for two days to allow religious services to go ahead, but the town's Palestinian mayor said the celebrations would be muted.

"Bethlehem is a sad city," Mayor Hanna Nasser told reporters.

"It's the first time in the city's history that the Christmas tree is not lit - in protest at against the Israeli occupation."

Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah - the highest-ranking Roman Catholic clergyman in the Holy Land - led a procession from Jerusalem for Midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity.

He was met by sombre crowds carrying Palestinian flags and pictures of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

He led Midnight Mass in front of a packed church after town leaders cancelled all festivities except religious ceremonies.

Israel has banned Mr Arafat from attending Christmas services in the town for the second consecutive year, accusing him of failing to prevent attacks against Israelis.

"Now they have prevented me for the second time to participate with my brothers in the Nativity Church," Mr Arafat told reporters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, where he has been confined by Israel for the past year.

"In spite of that, I am sending from my heart my greetings, 'Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas', and we hope that we will meet together in Jerusalem and also in Bethlehem."

The Israeli Government said it would organise buses to take Christians from the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and Israel to Christmas services.

315-333: Emperor Constantine builds Church of the Nativity
1099-1187: Christian Crusaders control Bethlehem
1571-1922: Ottoman Empire rules region
1922-1948: British mandate
1948-1967: Ruled by Jordan
1967-1995: Under Israeli control
Dec. 1995: Palestinian Authority takes control of West Bank
2001-2002: Israelis move in and out of Bethlehem

"Anyone who wants to go to Bethlehem will have a seat," said government spokesman Ranaan Gissin. He added that security checks would be carried out on those wishing to travel.

"One cannot ignore that this is not an ordinary Christmas, this is Christmas under fire," he said.

No soldiers were seen near the Church of the Nativity or in surrounding neighbourhoods, news agencies reported, while troops kept a low profile at entry points into the town.

The army lifted a curfew in Bethlehem on Sunday and said it would not re-impose it unless there was an alert.

Gaza skirmishes

In the Gaza Strip, meanwhile, a teenage Palestinian boy was killed and three others were wounded when Israeli tanks fired a shell into a group between the Karni and Erez crossings with Israel.

The Israeli army said soldiers saw members of the group digging near an army post, and fired into them on the suspicion that they were planting explosives.

Earlier, the army said it had blown up a house after discovering a tunnel used for smuggling weapons into Gaza from Egpyt.

It said it had faced Palestinian gunfire as it demolished several other houses along the Egypt-Gaza border.

24 December, 2002


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