Surreal Christmas in Bethlehem: A City Without Festivity

Celebrations Lived in Mournful Climate

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BETHLEHEM, Dec. 24, 2000, (ZENIT.org). – Three months of war have covered Christmas in Bethlehem with sadness, even as Christians celebrate religious ceremonies today in the lands where Jesus was born.



Every city is decorated with Christmas ornaments and lights, except Bethlehem, where there will be neither festivities, fireworks, nor Christmas lights. The municipality of Bethlehem has decided that the only Christmas decoration will be a Christmas tree in Manger Square, in front of the Basilica of the Nativity. The tree will be decorated with lights, but not with color or ornaments. Instead papers will be attached with the names of 300 Palestinians killed in the violence of the past weeks.

"There is no singing, no Christmas lights, no Christmas decorations," lamented Theresa Dalmau, 46, of Puerto Rico, to the Reuters agency. "It´s Christmas because we know it´s Christmas, not because you can feel it. They are mourning their dead and wounded."

On the Israeli side, the Israeli army has authorized entrance to Bethlehem for pilgrims "only as far as the security situation allows."

The arrival in Bethlehem of the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah, has disproved the fears of Israeli security services. Nonetheless, the procession has been characterized by an impressive development of security forces.

The Patriarch was escorted by the Israeli police up to the entrance of Bethlehem, some eight miles south of Jerusalem, on territory dependent on the Palestinian National Authority. Palestinian forces secured the area from the entrance to Bethlehem to the Basilica of the Nativity.

The Franciscans, charged with the upkeep of the Holy Land, have done everything to respect the norms and traditions that have governed the liturgical celebrations since the last century. Thus, Sabbah was received by the mayor and the parish priest of Beit Jala, the small town that has been a protagonist in the continual conflict with Jewish neighborhoods outside Jerusalem.

Subsequently, the Patriarch was received by the parish priests of Bethlehem and Beit Sahour, the faithful, and civil authorities, right before the Tomb of Rachel, which was surrounded by soldiers.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat returned today to the West Bank for the first time in almost three months to participate in the Christmas Eve Mass in Bethlehem, as he does each year. His visit is said to have raised the spirits of the Palestinians somewhat.

The big news for Christians this December 24 has been the penitential procession directed by the patriarch that has crossed the alleys of ancient Bethlehem and terminated in the square adjacent the Basilica of the Nativity. The only trouble for the participants was the rain.

But in Bethlehem, there are few pilgrims. Twenty-one hotels having a capacity of 2250 persons are empty and in recent weeks only about 100 pilgrims have traveled to the city. When the Patriarch arrived in the windy and rainy Manger Square, only some 200 people were there to meet him. A rainbow that formed over the square added the only splash of color. The three new 200-person-capacity inns run for pilgrims by the Franciscans in Bethlehem, Jerusalem, and Nazareth have been closed since the beginning of the conflicts.

"It´s a sad Christmas this year because of the absence of peace in the city of peace and joy," commented Bethlehem´s mayor, Hanna Nasser.