INTERNATIONAL

A cheerful Christmas in Bethlehem

Lull in violence draws pilgrims to the Biblical town

BETHLEHEM (West Bank): 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 Jesus’ birth 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 pilgrims 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’ 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,” Mr. Martins said, referring to the Israeli-Palestinian peace conference held in the U.S. 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’ 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.

Gray concrete walls measuring about 8 metre enclose Bethlehem on three sides — part of the separation barrier that Israel says it’s building to keep out attackers from the West Bank. Palestinians allege that the complex of concrete slabs and electronic fence 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 policemen led Patriarch Sabbah, in his flowing gold and burgundy robe, up to the gate, where border policemen waited to clang it shut behind him.

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

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. — AP

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