Holiday Cheer Lacking In Bethlehem

Manger Square, Bethlehem, West Bank, Christmas eve Israel Mideast Palestinian Palestinians marcher carries flag past Church of the Nativity AP

A diminished crowd of a few thousand people gathered in Bethlehem's Manger Square on Wednesday for Christmas Eve festivities that have been overshadowed by three years of violence in this West Bank town.

For the fourth straight year, pilgrims are staying away from Palestinian-ruled Bethlehem. CBS News Correspondent Robert Berger reports that's because, for most of the outside world, the West Bank is a war zone. It seems that the only pilgrims coming these days are trusting in divine protection.

"We are walking with Jesus, we are walking with the Lord," said one.

There are few decorations in Manger Square, the traditional birthplace of Jesus. Palestinians say that with continuing bloodshed and a devastated economy, they're in no mood to celebrate.

Some Palestinians and a smattering of tourists watched as the convoy of Michel Sabbah, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, arrived in Bethlehem.

Sabbah, surrounded by Palestinian police and church officials, was greeted by Bethlehem's mayor and other Palestinian dignitaries. Sabbah then entered the Church of the Nativity, built over the grotto where it is believed Jesus was born. Sabbah was scheduled to officiate at a midnight Mass.

The hour-long procession into the church was marked by the paucity of spectators. Hundreds of thousands of tourists used to throng Bethlehem in the weeks before Christmas, and the large square neighboring the church would fill with people on Christmas Eve.

This year, the few tourists and Palestinians complained about the police presence, the lack of religious feeling and the state of Bethlehem itself, which like most Palestinian towns and cities, has been hurt by the fighting.

"I didn't see anything but the backs of police officers. As long as the Palestinian Authority is in control there will be chaos," said Mona Sakhel, who traveled with her husband and four children from nearby Jerusalem to attend the Bethlehem festivities.

"It's very different. It's not quite as Christian as I thought," said Neil Cavers, 55, who came from Scotland to spend Christmas in Bethlehem.

Despite the dreary conditions and gray, cold weather, Christmas carols rang through Manger Square and incense wafted nearby as priests and altar boys lined the entrance of the fortress-like church.

Few of Bethlehem's usual decorations were in place: Many of the red, green and blue lights strung over the streets around Manger Square were burned out. The Palestinian Authority, saying it lacks the money, refused the town its usual $100,000 decoration budget, forcing local officials to scrounge up $10,000 on their own.

Palestinian Christians also complained that Israeli travel restrictions were making it hard for families to gather from across the West Bank for the holiday.

"Participation is very limited because of the closures and checkpoints, people could simply not come," Bethlehem Gov. Zohair Manasra said. "In spite of that, the Palestinians (here) are insisting on celebrating."

Sabbah said earlier this week that this year's Christmas message was "a message of hope and spiritual strength, despite all the obstacles that rise up in the way of peace."

A wall overlooking Manger Square was decorated with signs protesting a barrier Israel is building around the West Bank that also cuts off the edges of Bethlehem, near Jerusalem, from the rest of town. Next to a large poster of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, a sign read "Stop the wall."

Israel has barred Arafat, who in the past had attended the celebrations, from Bethlehem for a third straight year.

Before the procession, relatives of 26 Palestinian gunmen who were expelled after holing up in the church during a month-long standoff with Israeli forces in May 2002 gathered in front of the church and demanded their return. A child with a Santa Claus cap held a picture of her father and a Palestinian flag.

Despite the roadblocks into the town, security inside was very light. No one was being checked before entering the square, and a few dozen Palestinian police, some in blue camouflage uniforms, wandered around.

Israel has used checkpoints, curfews and closures to stop Palestinian suicide bombings that have killed more than 400 Israelis over the past three years. Israel said it planned to ease travel restrictions for Palestinian Christians over the holiday and facilitate entry past the roadblocks into Bethlehem.

The army said it removed a West Bank blockade, making it easier for Palestinians to get to Bethlehem.

Sabbah said Israel was showing "very good will" in encouraging the Christmas festivities.

But Manasra said the restrictions had not been eased.

"That's what they declared, but on the ground there are really no changes," he said.
  • Francie Grace

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