Sat, Dec 24, 2005 - Page 7 News List

Bethlehem's Christians seeking Christmas spirit

DPA , BETHLEHEM

A woman lights candles inside the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, on Thursday.

PHOTO: AP

Bethlehem's Christian population is trying hard this year to bring the Christmas atmosphere back to its streets.

For the first time in the last five years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting, the town's municipality has organized a week-long Christmas market.

The town hall has also once again decorated one of the tall pine trees on Manger Square and installed Christmas lighting in the historic city center -- something it refrained from doing in the earlier years of the intifada when the uprising was at its height.

But the decorations are modest -- Parish Priest Amjad Sabbara cites lack of funding as the main reason -- and the market, which with no more than a dozen stands looks rather sober, attracts few visitors.

The Christmas spirit still seems poignantly absent in Bethlehem, and the birth place of Jesus would need a miracle to bring it back in time for Christmas Eve.

Bethlehem houses one of the holiest shrines in Christianity -- the Church of the Nativity, built on the spot where, Christian tradition has it, stood the stable in which Jesus was born.

But while tourists and pilgrims are slowly beginning to return to the West Bank town after the intifada lost much of its ferocity, they are still a fraction of the peak numbers of the year 2000, when millions visited Bethlehem to mark two millenia since the birth of Jesus.

The rush accompanying Muslim holidays, of people buying groceries and other essentials, is also lacking, as today only one third of Bethlehem's 30,000 residents are Christians, who live among a faster growing Muslim population.

Nevertheless, says Bethlehem's Roman Catholic priest, Father Sabarra, when asked about the Christmas cheer, "I feel it better this year."

"We have tried our best to make people feel that this year is different" by organizing a series of festivities, including the Christmas market, the Franciscan says.

The decorations along Star Street, through which Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah is to lead the traditional Christmas Eve procession from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, are simple mainly because of a lack of money, he explains.

Bethlehem Mayor Victor Batarseh complained in a news conference last week that Bethlehem -- which with some 35 percent of its population making a living from tourism has been hard hit by the past five years of mutual Israeli-Palestinian violence -- was not receiving any financial assistance from the Christian world, nor was it getting sufficient funding from the Palestinian Authority.

But the town is slowly recovering. This holiday season it is expecting 30,000 tourists, as opposed to 18,000 last winter.

"This year is better than the last four years," says Nabil Hirmas, 52, a Palestinian guide who gives tours of the Church of the Nativity in English, French and German.

"Yesterday we had 150 tourists. It depends on the day, sometimes there are 500, sometimes 400," he says, adding "it's not like in 2000. In 2000 we had 5,000 per day."

At the Christmas market, on a small square off Star Street at about a 10-minute walk from the Church of the Nativity, a Palestinian tries to sell olive wood statues from his wood carving factory for what he says are wholesale prices.

No one queues up to buy the items, but in a reminder of the holiday season, the strains of Jingle Bells in Arabic come wafting from a nearby music and gift shop on the largely empty square.

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