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Few Foreign Pilgrims Travel to Bethlehem

Hundreds of people packed the Church of the Nativity on Monday to celebrate Christmas at Jesus' traditional birthplace, but few foreign tourists were among the worshippers, putting a damper on the ho
( [email protected] ) Dec 25, 2006 01:19 PM EST

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) - Hundreds of people packed the Church of the Nativity on Monday to celebrate Christmas at Jesus' traditional birthplace, but few foreign tourists were among the worshippers, putting a damper on the holiday cheer.

Most of the visitors were Palestinian Christians or Israeli Arabs. Foreign visitors, who are critical to Bethlehem's economy, were largely absent, apparently deterred by recent Palestinian infighting and years of conflict with Israel.

The tensions, though, did little to dash the spirits of foreign pilgrims who did make the journey to the Holy Land.

"The experience was incredible," said Nick Parker, 24, of Goodland, Kan., who was visiting Bethlehem for the first time. "I could feel the true spirit of Christmas here in Bethlehem."

For local residents, the atmosphere was gloomier. Shop owners, who make most of their income during the Christmas season, complained this year was among the worst in memory.

The Palestinian Ministry of Tourism said 3,500 pilgrims arrived in Bethlehem this year _ only a small fraction of the tens of thousands who would arrive before Israeli-Palestinian violence broke out in late 2000.

The subdued Christmas adds to the woes of Bethlehem, which already is suffering from international sanctions imposed on the Hamas-led Palestinian government as well as Israel's separation barrier.

"The economic situation is very much affecting the Christmas atmosphere here," said Mary Bader, who came to celebrate from Jerusalem.

This Christmas is the first under a Palestinian Authority governed by the militant Islamic group Hamas. To alleviate Christian fears ahead of the holiday, Hamas promised that it would send $50,000 to decorate Manger Square in the center of town for the holiday. It was not clear if the money ever arrived.

The massive barrier encloses Bethlehem and separates it from neighboring Jerusalem. Israel says it built the barrier to prevent Palestinian suicide bombers from reaching Israeli population centers. Palestinians view the structure, which dips into parts of the West Bank, as a land grab.

At the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI took note of the recent meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

"I place in the hands of the divine Child of Bethlehem the indications of a resumption of dialogue between the Israelis and the Palestinians, which we have witnessed in recent days, and the hope of further encouraging developments," the pontiff said in his Christmas day speech.

With every Christmas, the Holy Land's Christian community shrinks a bit. The native Palestinian Christian population has dipped below 2 percent of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Arab East Jerusalem, down from at least 15 percent in 1950, by some estimates. Bethlehem is now less than 20 percent Christian.

© 2006 The Associated Press