Vatican Asks Israel to Permit Arafat at Christmas Mass

Describes Sharon´s Prohibition as Arbitrary

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VATICAN CITY, DEC. 24, 2001 ( The Holy See asked the state of Israel to lift a ban on Yasser Arafat and let him participate in Christmas Mass in Bethlehem.

Vatican spokesman Joaquín Navarro-Valls said the ban by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was «imposed arbitrarily.»

The Israeli government said today it would not allow the Palestinian leader to travel to Bethlehem for the Mass unless he arrests the killers of Israeli Tourism Minister Rechavam Ze´evi, CNN reported.

In Ramallah, Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah and other Christian leaders visited Arafat to lend him their support. Arafat has vowed to be in Bethlehem, called the birthplace of Jesus by Christians, for Christmas Eve Mass.

Since 1995, when Israel withdrew from Bethlehem, Arafat, a Muslim, has attended the Christmas Mass at dawn there. In Bethlehem, Christmas festivities got under way in the afternoon without the Palestinian leader anyway. Scouts playing drums and bagpipes marched in a Manger Square procession led by Latin Patriarch Sabbah, the top Catholic clergyman in the Holy Land.

In Bethlehem, the mood was somber, with only local Christians attending the scout march. Manger Square was decorated with Palestinian flags, an Arafat poster and a large banner reading: «Sharon assassinates the joy of Christmas.»

Earlier in the day, Arafat met with Christian leaders, including Patriarch Sabbah, the Associated Press reported. «The dignity of President Arafat is the dignity of all of us,´´ the patriarch, a Palestinian, said. «The occupation situation is unfair to the Palestinians and they have to have their freedom. This is the message of Christmas.»

Senior European Union diplomats said they were trying to persuade Israel to rescind the travel ban.

The Belgian ambassador to Israel, Wilfred Geens, speaking for the EU, said Arafat is the only Muslim leader who makes a point of attending Christmas Mass in a show of religious tolerance. «It would look very bad if Arafat were prevented from attending the Mass,» Geens told the AP.

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