December 24, 2005

Pilgrims bring Christmas hope to walled Bethlehem

By Mohammed Assadi

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (Reuters) - Hopes of a rush of
pilgrims lifted the mood a little in Bethlehem on Saturday as
the town where Christians believe Jesus was born prepared to
mark its first Christmas walled from Jerusalem.

Christmas celebrations have been muted since a Palestinian
uprising began in 2000, but a 10-month-old ceasefire has
encouraged a big increase in the number of pilgrims and
tourists coming to Bethlehem.

"Things are a bit better than in previous years. All the
hotels are booked solid with pilgrims who came to celebrate
Christmas," said Mariam Azizeh, 47, manager of the pretty
stone-built city's tourist office.

Israeli authorities estimate the number of Christmas
visitors to Bethlehem will double to 200,000 this year.

But pilgrims taking the road from adjacent Jerusalem -- the
likely path taken by Mary and Joseph in the Christian narrative
-- cannot miss the biggest change to Bethlehem this year: the
completion of an eight-meter (26-feet) concrete wall.

"This wall must not exist. One day it will not exist,"
Michel Sabbah, Pope Benedict's representative in the Holy Land,
told reporters after he passed through the military crossing
into Bethlehem.

"The Palestinian people should regain their liberty and
land with a state and a capital and the Israeli people should
have security," Sabbah, Latin Patriarch for the Holy Land, a
Palestinian, added.

Israel erected its internationally condemned barrier inside
the West Bank with the avowed aim of stopping Palestinian
suicide bombers. Palestinians say that the barrier is a land
grab that denies them a viable state.

The World Court has branded the barrier illegal because it
loops into occupied land.

Israel's army has eased restrictions on visitors to allow
visits by foreign Christians as well as Palestinian Christians
living alongside the Muslim majority.


Palestinians said they were determined to brighten up the
city more for Christmas than in recent years, setting up a huge
tree and strings of lights. Lines of Palestinian flags
fluttered alongside.

Bethlehem's tourism dependent economy crashed during the
uprising as the city turned into an intermittent war zone.

"This Christmas we are defying the wall, the occupation and
the continued Israeli raids into the town," said Bethlehem
governor Salah al-Ta'mari.

Internal Palestinian unrest also sounded a sour note before
Christmas. A group of militants briefly took over City Hall to
demand money and jobs from the Palestinian Authority, adding to
concerns that pilgrims would still be wary.

A handful of visitors mingled with dozens of Palestinian
policemen at Manger Square in front of the Church of the
Nativity, revered by Christians as Jesus's birthplace. A band
of boy scouts beat drums to mark the start of the festivities.

Flickers of sunlight burst through low grey cloud. The
meteorological office said that snow was possible, to give
Bethlehem its first white Christmas in many years.

Piling high falafel chick-pea snacks from his frying pan,
Said Morad said he was disappointed there were not more
pilgrims around, though visitors usually arrive later in the
day in time for Midnight Mass.

"There is nobody here to buy these delicious falafel," said
Morad angrily. "I will dump them in the garbage."