Gloomy Bethlehem

Arafat Bethlehem keffiyeh Christmas AP

Israel, showing no holiday goodwill towards a man it branded "irrelevant," ignored international appeals to let Palestinian president asser Arafat attend midnight mass in the town revered as the birthplace of Jesus.

Despite brilliantly sunny skies, there was little cheer on Christmas Day in the town where Jesus was born. Tourists stayed away, frightened by more than a year of violence.

CBS News Correspondent Robert Berger reports it looked like any other day in Manger Square: There were no pilgrims. Normally, thousands would line up to visit the grotto where tradition says Jesus was born, but most stayed away because of continuing Mideast violence.

Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah conducted morning Mass in Bethlehem, and about 300 people gathered for an afternoon march through nearby Shepherds' Field in the mostly Christian town of Beit Sahour, where biblical tradition says the herders watching their sheep were awestruck by news of the Christ Child's birth.

The annual longer procession, from Manger Square about 2 miles away, was scrapped for lack of participants.

"In spite of the tanks, the closure and the bombardment that your town Bethlehem has faced, I say to you all merry Christmas and wish you a happy new year," Sabbah told congregants at the morning Mass, referring to Israeli military actions during the 15 months of violence.

"The situation is what it is. We try to do our best to...offer hope to the local population," said Father Aurelio Mulestagno, who is from Malta and studies in a nearby monastery.


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Israeli officials had accused Arafat of not doing enough to crack down on militant groups. But Palestinian officials called the ban a violation of freedom of worship and said it was aimed at undermining Arafat's authority.

Bethlehem, shaken by a conflict that has turned tourism into a ghost of Christmas-past, again celebrated the holiday in a somber mood with Israeli troops parked just outside town.

"It is wonderful to be here with the underdogs," said Deirdre, an Irish woman among a scattering of foreign pilgrims who braved Israeli checkpoints to reach Bethlehem.

"You see the scars of the fighting here...walking through the city you appreciate the situation these people live in," said Belgian Thomas Gilbert, 30, who made the two-hour pilgrimage from Jerusalem to Bethlehem by foot.

Ellen McCloskey, 69, from Pittsburgh, said she traveled to the birthplace of Jesus because "this is where it happened. He's the truth, and, my goodness, if we ever needed truth, it's today." She was one of the few foreigners to brave the trip to Bethlehem this year.

Six Christian denominations represented in the Holy Land issued a statement calling on the U.N. Security council and the United Stateto "put an end to the belligerency and arrogance of Israel and to compel its government to retract its despotic decisions."

The decision also was criticized by the Vatican, the European Union, several Israeli Cabinet ministers and even Israeli President Moshe Katsav — a member of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's own hard-line Likud Party.

The French Foreign Ministry said in a statement Christmas morning that "The ban on the president of the Palestinian Authority from attending Midnight Mass in Bethlehem is a decision that, unfortunately, on Christmas Eve, a day of unity and peace, stains the image of Israeli authorities."

"There is not any connection here to freedom of religion," insisted Daniel Ayalon, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "In fact, Mr. Arafat, who is, I believe, a devout Muslim, can freely go and worship in any mosque in Ramallah.

"I think it's more a political statement....We've just been burying and mourning...innocent civilians who were brutally murdered by Palestinian terrorists, and I don't think we should go on with business as usual."

Saying his "heart is heavy with sorrow," Arafat told the Palestinian people in a televised speech from the West Bank city of Ramallah that Israel had committed a crime by preventing a "believer in God and peace" from traveling to Bethlehem.

Arafat has been stranded in Ramallah since Israel destroyed his helicopters in the Gaza Strip, stationed tanks near his Ramallah office and launched air strikes against symbols of his power in retaliation for suicide attacks earlier this month.

He had attended Christmas midnight mass in Bethlehem's Roman Catholic Saint Catherine's Church, adjoining the Church of the Nativity, since the town came under Palestinian rule in 1995.

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, built over Jesus's traditional birth grotto. In front of the chair was a lectern, padded with gold upholstery, and a sign with Arafat's name.

In his midnight mass sermon, Sabbah, the Catholic Church's senior representative to the Holy Land, said peace was conditional on an end to Israeli occupation.

Arafat said the "cement checkpoints and the aggressor's oppressive guns have prevented my participation with you at our annual celebrations on this holy occasion."

Israeli tanks and roadblocks encircle Palestinian cities in what Israel calls a security measure and Palestinians describe as collective punishment. Bethlehem is some 12 miles from Ramallah.

Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said Arafat owed "penance to his people" for their suffering in the Palestinian uprising that began in September 2000 after peace talks stalled.


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