A Battered Bethlehem Gears Up for Christmas

Marching bands, children dressed as Santa Claus and clergymen in magenta skullcaps gathered in the center of Bethlehem Sunday to celebrate Christmas Eve.
( [email protected] ) Dec 25, 2006 01:35 AM EST

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) - Marching bands, children dressed as Santa Claus and clergymen in magenta skullcaps gathered in the center of Bethlehem Sunday to celebrate Christmas Eve, doing their best to dispel the gloom hovering over Jesus' traditional birthplace.

In an annual custom, Bethlehem's residents enacted Christmas rituals that seem out of place in the Middle East. Palestinian Scouts marched through the streets, some wearing kilts and pompom-topped berets, playing drums and bagpipes. They passed inflatable red-suited Santas, looking forlorn in the West Bank sunshine.

Other aspects of this Bethlehem Christmas, however, could take place nowhere else. To get to the town, Michel Sabbah, the Catholic Church's highest official in the Holy Land, rode in his motorcade through a huge steel gate in the Israeli separation barrier that separates Jerusalem from Bethlehem.

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.

The robed clergyman was led into Palestinian-controlled territory by a formal escort of five mounted Israeli policemen. Two Israeli Border Police troops closed the gate behind him.

"God wants us all to be peacemakers. He wants every believer who has faith in God — Jewish, Muslim or Christian — to work to make peace," Sabbah said in his annual Christmas address at his Jerusalem office before departing for Bethlehem.

"Our leaders so far have only made war, they haven't made peace," Sabbah said.

Bethlehem's tourist industry has been hit hard by the last six years of Israeli-Palestinian violence and by the barrier, which Israel began building in 2002, but also by internal Palestinian frictions.

This Christmas finds the Palestinian Authority governed, for the first time, 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 town's center, for the holiday. But it wasn't clear if the money arrived.

There were fewer Christmas decorations than in the past, and for the first time no Christmas carols were piped over the loudspeaker system.

Standing outside his empty souvenir shop, George Baboul said this is the "worst Christmas" he has seen in more than 30 years. Baboul's shop, the "Bethlehem Star Store," is in a prime location, at the side of the Church of the Nativity, but he said there is no business.

"No tourists are coming," said Baboul, 72, who opened the shop in 1967. "I don't know what's the reason for that. There are no problems, Bethlehem is safe, but tourists are afraid to come."

Bethlehem's mayor, Victor Batarseh, said his city would celebrate Christmas despite the hardship. "With all this oppression, this economic stress, physical stress, psychological stress, we are defying all these obstacles and we are celebrating Christmas so that we'll put joy into the faces of our children, joy to the citizens of Bethlehem," Batarseh said.

Each year, Israel eases travel restrictions to facilitate access to Bethlehem. Last week, Israel's Tourism Ministry said it would provide free transportation between Jerusalem and Bethlehem on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

Israel's Tourism Ministry forecast 18,000 tourists would visit Bethlehem this year, up from 16,000 last year, but far below the tens of thousands of people who thronged Manger Square at the height of peacemaking in the 1990s.

But by Sunday afternoon, there were only about 1,000 people in Manger Square, nearly all of them locals. The only large foreign contingent was made up of around 200 Filipino Christians who work in Israel and who made the short trip to Bethlehem to celebrate Christmas, accompanied by their spiritual leader, Father Angelo.

"We will have three masses tomorrow," said the small, bubbly priest, wearing a brown frock, herding the group through the narrow entrance to the Church of the Nativity. He predicted that 3,000 Filipinos would arrive in Bethlehem on Christmas Day.

"It's Christmas, it's time for joy, hope and peace, and happiness for all," he said.

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