Christmas in Bethlehem Marked by Record Crowds, Calls for Peace

( [email protected] ) Dec 26, 2005 10:51 PM EST

The biggest influx of Christmas pilgrims for years made its way into the town of Bethlehem, as calls for peace resonated Sunday.

"We all need [peace]," Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told Christian leaders, "and I intend to make every effort to achieve it."

Both the Israeli Prime Minister and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said in their Christmas messages they were committed to peacemaking in 2006.

"In our bitter and painful reality, we use this spiritual and religious occasion to send a message of peace to our Israeli neighbors," said Abbas, who like most Palestinians, is a Muslim.

About 30,000 pilgrims converged Sunday in the town where Jesus was born for Christmas celebrations this year, according to Israeli officials, about twice as many as last year and the highest turnout since fighting broke out over five years ago.

Tourism throughout Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories suffered a sharp drop after the conflict known as the Al Aqsa intifadah broke out in September 2000, unleashing Palestinian suicide bombs and Israeli raids and sending tourism figures plummeting.

The fighting culminated in the 2002 Israeli siege of Bethlehem. Palestinian gunmen holed up in the Church of the Nativity – one of the oldest continuously operating churches in the world, which is said to have been built over Jesus' birthplace. The church was defaced with gunfire, and the church bell-ringer was shot and killed in the crossfire.

The intifadah also led to the Israeli decision to build the massive West Bank separation barrier, which divides Bethlehem and blocks access to neighboring Jerusalem.

Last February, however, Israel and the Palestinians declared a cease-fire, bringing a sharp drop in bloodshed. Israel's recent withdrawal from the Gaza Strip also boosted spirits. Although the Christmas crowd this year was still only a fraction of the peak years in the mid-1990s, the influx of tourists reflected the improved security situation.

Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, the top Roman Catholic envoy in the Holy Land, spoke of the new atmosphere in the air in his midnight Mass address and urged both sides to put a final end to violence.

"There seems to be a new Palestinian and Israeli political reality, despite the many complications and hesitations that surround it," Sabbah said, according to the Associated Press. "Leaders with good and honest intentions can make of this new era a time of new blessings ... stopping the past to make room for a new future begin."

Although both sides have long said they want peace, there has been no sign of early talks. Also, there have been disputes between the two sides over several issues, including Israel’s security wall.

While Israel says the barrier is needed to stop suicide bombers, the Palestinians say the structure, which dips into the West Bank in many places, amounts to seizure of land they claim for an independent state.

The Palestinians "are seeking a bridge to peace instead of Israeli walls," Abbas said in a televised speech Saturday. "Unfortunately, Israel is continuing with its destructive policy ... [and] transforming our land into a big jail."

Although Israel's army has eased restrictions to allow foreigners – as well as Israeli and Palestinian Christians from the West Bank and Gaza – to visit Bethlehem, pilgrims taking the road from Jerusalem for the first time have to pass through an iron gateway in an eight meter (26 foot)-high concrete wall since Israeli completed a section of its West Bank barrier outside Bethlehem.

Israeli Defense Forces Lieutenant Colonel Aviv Feigel told the Boston Globe that Israel would take ''a calculated risk" during the Christmas season – checking buses and vehicles at random as they cross the barrier rather than inspecting all of them.

He said the IDF would also allow more Palestinian Christians to travel in and out of Bethlehem through next month when Orthodox and Armenian churches celebrate Christmas.