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Christmas Is Cancelled In Bethlehem


CHRISTMAS is cancelled in the streets, if not the churches, of Bethlehem.

As Israel announced that its troops would remain on the streets of Christ's
birthplace and that Yassir Arafat would be barred from attending
celebrations, church and civic leaders announced that festivities would be
kept to a minimum. The 25ft Christmas tree in the grounds of Manger Square
would remain unadorned and the -ú130,000 display of street lights unlit.

Hanna Nasser, the Mayor of Bethlehem, said that the decision had been
simple: there was no stomach for festivities in a town whose 30,000
Palestinian inhabitants have nothing to spend, little to eat and are forced
to stay in their homes for days at a time.

"Our infrastructure, our buildings, streets and pavements have been
destroyed. We are not able to fix the millions of pounds of damage because
the Israelis have only lifted the curfew for a few days in the last three
weeks," Mr Nasser, a Christian, said.

"When people are allowed out for a few hours, they must rush to buy food
and bring their sick to hospital. Nobody feels like celebrating."

The Israeli Government insists that tanks and troops must remain on the
streets to ensure security for its own citizens after a wave of suicide
bombings. Israeli armour rolled back into Bethlehem after a Hamas suicide
bomber living in the city killed 11 bus passengers in Jerusalem on November 21.

Yesterday Israel said that while Mr Arafat's presence would be prohibited
for the second year running, Bethlehem would remain open to everyone else.
The news was greeted with anger and resignation in Manger Square.

Until last year Mr Arafat, a Muslim married into a prominent Christian
family, had attended every Christmas Mass since 1995. His wife, Suha,
usually turns on the tree lights.

Mr Nasser said that the Israeli action broke a tradition dating back to the
British mandate, and subsequent Jordanian and Israeli control, that
dignitaries were invited from the ruling authority. "This is unwise and
unhelpful. They are mixing religion and politics," he said.

Israel accuses Mr Arafat of cynically portraying himself as a guardian of
Christian shrines while allowing Muslim gunmen to make the Christian
population's life a misery.

Clerics in the 4th-century Church of the Nativity - shared between
Franciscans, Greek Orthodox and Armenians - insisted that Midnight Mass and
other ceremonies would remain unchanged. However, in a town where 60 per
cent of the population is dependent on a tourist trade that vanished upon
the outbreak of the intifada, storage rooms inside the church are filled
with charity parcels of flour, pasta, pulses and wheat.
Father Ibrahim Faltas, a spokesman for the Franciscans, said: "Across the
world billions of people will be celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, but
here, at the centre of all this attention, Christians cannot celebrate. We
don't have the money and it is not right with people in such miserable
circumstances. Our main concern is not decorations, it is getting food for
the people."



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