| Sunday, December 26, 2004
| FEWER FAITHFUL FLOCK TO BETHLEHEM
|BETHLEHEM, West Bank---In this
Christmas season of hopes and fears, the little
town of Bethlehem finds itself suspended somewhere
between the two.
With lamplights glowing softly on ancient stones
and the musty fragrance of incense penetrating the
damp winter chill, Palestinian christians, foreign
dignitaries and a smattering of tourists celebrated
midnight mass on Friday night in the basilica built
on the sport where tradition says Jesus was born.
The holiday-- marked by its usual Holy Land melange
of army roadblocks and candlelight carols, twingkling
lights and olive drab armored vehicles -- has seen some
tentative cause for optimism this year: the easing of
day-to-day violent conflict with Israel, coupled with
greater Palestinian aspirations to democracy in the wake
of Yassr Arafat's death.
But Bethlehem, battered by more than four years of bitter
fighting between Palestinian militants and Israeli troops,
wonders whether it can ever revitalize a tourism industry
that was once its lifeblood. And city leaders sadly concede
that the exodus of Palestinian Christians is probably irreversible.
Still, the city was able to conjure up something of its
centuries old Christmas spirit, even on a cold and drizzly
holiday eve. Most of those celebrating in Bethlehem were local
Palestinians, including throngs of young Muslim men and boys
seeking any excuse for a night out from one of the city's grim
Palestinian refugee camps.
The few foreign tourists present mostly belonged to organized
church groups, rather than the solo travelers who could be found
venturing to the West Bank on their own in the years before the
intifada broke out in September 2000.
Mahmoud Abbas, chief of the Palestine Liberation Organization,
attended midnight mass in the chapel adjoining the nearly 1,500
year old Basilica of the Nativity, reviving a long held trasition.
Arafat, before being effectively imprisoned by Israel in his Ramallah
headquarters, had been an enthusiastic adherent of the Bethlehem
festivities. He and his Christian born wife, Suha, sometimes would
dress up their small dauighter, Zahwa, in santa style garb.
The Israeil army said it had done all it could to ease the passages
of foreign pilgraims and local Palestinian Christians to the Bethlehem
festivities, although Bethlehems's governor said free access should have
been provided days earlier.
"We hope very much that things will change",said George Baboul, who owns
a souvenir shop off Manger square.
On this holiday ever, however, his shop was so empty that he did not
even bother switching on the lights.
(abstracted from the CHICAGOTRIBUNE/LOS ANGELES TIMES by Laura King)
|posted by infraternam meam @ 4:39 AM