/ 24 December 2007

Christmas more cheerful in Bethlehem

Gloom was banished from Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem for the first time in years on Monday as Christian pilgrims from all over the world flocked here to celebrate the birth of Jesus in an atmosphere of renewed tranquillity.

After Israeli-Palestinian fighting erupted in 2000, most of the people milling around Manger Square in the centre of this biblical town on Christmas had been local Palestinians. But this year there were large numbers of tourists from all over the world, back after avoiding the region’s strife.

Tiago Martins (28), from Curitiba, Brazil, said he was excited about visiting Jesus’s traditional birthplace for the first time. New peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians reassured him that there was no threat to his safety, he said, before crossing from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.

”The idea that it’s a Christian city makes me more calm, and I think going to the West Bank is more comfortable since Annapolis,” Martins said, referring to the Israeli-Palestinian peace conference held in the United States last month.

Bethlehem mayor Victor Batarseh predicted earlier this month that the lull in violence would help to bring about 65 000 tourists to visit the traditional site of Jesus’s birth this Christmas — four times the number who trickled into town for Christmas in 2005.

Still, unmistakable signs of the conflict that has killed more than 4 400 Palestinians and 1 100 Israelis in just the past seven years made it clear that peace was not yet at hand.

Grey concrete walls measuring about 8m enclose Bethlehem on three sides — part of the separation barrier that Israel says it is building to keep out attackers from the West Bank. Palestinians allege that the complex of concrete slabs and electronic fence, which dips into parts of the West Bank, is a thinly veiled land grab.

Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, the Roman Catholic Church’s highest official in the Holy Land, could only reach Bethlehem after passing through a massive steel gate in the barrier. An escort of Israeli mounted police officers led Sabbah, in his flowing gold and burgundy robe, up to the gate, where border police officials waited to clang it shut behind him.

Last week, Sabbah waded into the charged debate over Israel’s Jewish character by alleging that Israel’s identity as a Jewish state discriminates against non-Jews.

”If there’s a state of one religion, other religions are naturally discriminated against,” Sabbah — the first Palestinian to hold the position — told reporters at his annual pre-Christmas press conference.

Israel rejected his claim that people of other faiths do not enjoy equal rights.

In the Gaza Strip, however, the mood was much more somber than in Bethlehem. Festivities in the poverty-stricken territory’s tiny Christian community of 3 000 were decidedly muted.

For decades, Christmas had been marked by an enormous, lavishly decorated tree in Gaza City’s main square, coloured lights strung across the plaza and Christmas carols ringing out from loudspeakers. Shopkeepers did a brisk business selling decorations, cards and gifts, but all this cheer evaporated with the outbreak of fighting between Israelis and Palestinians in late 2000.

The grimness only deepened this year with the assassination of a prominent Christian activist, Rami Ayyad, after Islamic Hamas militants overran the coastal strip. There were few outward signs of celebration, and an austere midnight Mass was planned at the city’s only Roman Catholic church.

Hamas has denied involvement in Ayyad’s killing and vowed to find those responsible for his slaying in October.

Early on Monday, hundreds of Gaza Christians lined up at the passenger crossing between Gaza and Israel, hoping to be allowed to cross over to the West Bank to celebrate in Bethlehem. Many of those who hoped to leave said they didn’t plan to return.

Israel said it would allow in 400 Christmas celebrants from Gaza.

According to the Jerusalem Centre for Jewish-Christian Relations, there are an estimated 170 000 Christians in Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. — Sapa-AP