Christmas in Bethlehem: Few Tourists, No Arafat

Somber Mood over Jesus´ Birthplace

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BETHLEHEM, West Bank, DEC. 25, 2001 ( Tourists on Christmas Day stayed away from the town where Jesus was born, frightened by more than a year of violence. Israel prevented Yasser Arafat from making his annual pilgrimage.

Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah conducted morning Mass in Bethlehem, and about 300 people gathered for an afternoon procession through nearby Shepherds´ Field in the mostly Christian town of Beit Sahour, where biblical tradition says the herders watching their sheep heard the news of the Christ Child´s birth, the Associated Press reported.

The group, which included local residents as well as priests from abroad, held prayers in a nearby church. The annual longer procession, from Manger Square about two miles away, was scrapped for lack of participants.

With pilgrims and tourists almost entirely absent this year, there were few Christmas decorations and Manger Square reverted by midmorning to a parking lot as local residents, many of them Muslims, milled about, conducting business as usual.

On Christmas Eve, a few thousand people gathered in Manger Square, most of them local Palestinians. Posters of Arafat and Palestinian flags outnumbered Christmas decorations in front of the fourth-century Church of the Nativity, marking the traditional birthplace of Jesus.

Politics overwhelmed the celebration. A high point of the evening was a speech by Arafat, who is marooned in the town of Ramallah, 12 miles to the north. Palestinians in Manger Square watching the speech on TV applauded after Arafat blasted the Israelis.

Arafat complained, «The Israeli tanks, the barriers and the rifles of the oppressors have prevented me from sharing with you our annual celebration on this divine and blessed occasion.»

An empty chair in the front row, a black and white checkered keffiyeh headdress draped across it, symbolized Arafat´s absence during the Midnight Mass at St. Catherine´s Church next to the Church of the Nativity. In front of the chair was a lectern, padded with gold upholstery, and a sign with Arafat´s name.

Another empty chair was reserved for Bethlehem Mayor Hanna Nasser, who boycotted the service because Arafat was banned.

Some congregants fell to their knees during the service. An elderly nun sat to one side of the church, her head bowed, hands folded in prayer. The warmly dressed crowd of about 700 people finished the service with a rendition of the carol «Silent Night.»

Last week Arafat called for an end to the violence in a televised speech, and seven Palestinians were killed in clashes between the Palestinian police and supporters of Islamic militant groups.

But Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon´s government has maintained that Arafat has done far from enough, and on Monday banned him from traveling overland to Bethlehem, insisting he must first arrest the assassins of an Israeli Cabinet minister who was gunned down in October.

It was the first time Arafat, a Muslim, has missed the Midnight Mass since 1995, when Israel turned the town over to Palestinian control a few days before Christmas under interim peace accords.

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