J’lem Latin Patriarch: Fence has turned Bethlehem into prison

Jerusalem’s Latin Patriarch Michel Sabah said Israel’s separation fence has turned Bethlehem into a prison, Israel Radio reported Saturday. Sabah called for the wall’s dismantling, adding that in its stead „bridges of peace and love” should be built, according to Israel Radio. Thousands of people packed Manger Square to watch Sabbah, the top Roman Catholic official in the Holy Land, enter Bethlehem for the Christmas celebrations. Holiday spirit returned to Bethlehem on Saturday for the first time in six years as hundreds of pilgrims from around the world packed the town of Jesus’ birth for Christmas Eve celebrations. Lining the streets on a crisp, windy day, pilgrims gathered in Manger Square – near the Church of the Nativity, built over the grotto where tradition says Jesus was born – to watch a procession of marching bands, bagpipe players and boy scout parades. Heavy winds blew the hats off the heads of boy scouts and police officers and knocked down metal security barriers. Yet the streets remained packed with visitors excited about spending Christmas in one of the holiest Christian places. More than 30,000 people were expected to flock to Bethlehem in what would be the largest turnout since fighting erupted in September 2000, but the bleak gray concrete slabs of Israel’s separation barrier at the entrance to town provided a constant reminder of the lingering conflict. Israel’s summer withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and a sharp drop in violence this year contributed to the joyful atmosphere, which buoyed the spirits of Bethlehem residents and tourists visiting the festively decorated town. Forecasts of a rare snowfall added to the sense of excitement in the air. „It’s really amazing. When you hear about all the conflict between Israel and Palestine, really I was expecting things to be a little bit … rougher,” said Stephen Ogden, 23, of Knoxville, Tennessee. Christmas songs and psalms rang out in the courtyard outside the Church of the Nativity, lending a spiritual air to the town. The crowd proceeded to the church, with some heading straight to the grotto, their heads bent in prayer. Others stayed to listen to Sabbah lead services at the nearby St. Catherine’s Church. In the first years after fighting erupted, an Israeli army siege and high death tolls among both Israelis and Palestinians put a damper on Christmas. Crowds that numbered tens of thousands during the boom years of the mid-1990s dwindled to just a few hundred. Even the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was barred from attending the celebration, confined by Israel to his headquarters in Ramallah. Instead, a black-and-white headdress – similar to the one he traditionally wore – was draped across the chair he usually occupied. Last year’s Christmas celebration was merrier than those of the previous four years, lifted by a thaw in relations after Arafat’s death. But shopkeepers and hotel owners still lamented the thin crowds, empty hotel rooms and bad weather. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, elected in January to succeed Arafat, planned to join the Bethlehem celebrations and attend Midnight Mass. Tickets to the mass were sold out, and some tourists had a hard time finding hotel accommodations. „It will be joyful and a very Merry Christmas, especially since the president will join us,” said Bethlehem Mayor Victor Batarseh. „There is enough police and security. It will be very peaceful.” Edwina Webster, 53, on a two-week vacation from Hereford, England, overcame her safety concerns to spend Christmas in Bethlehem. „It’s awesome here. To come here is very emotional,” she said. Walking out of the grotto under the Church of the Nativity, she was more than a little surprised by what she found. „I expected a little corner with a little barn,” she said, after exiting the stone cave. „It’s not at all what I imagined,” Webster said, looking around the bustling town that is no longer the pastoral shepherding area of biblical times. Although the Palestinian Authority never gave Bethlehem the $436,000 promised for Christmas festivities, the municipality got out the lights, bells and Palestinian flags from previous years and used donations to decorate every corner of the town. Israel also eased restrictions at its main checkpoint leading into town, decorating the military structure with posters signed by the Tourism Ministry. „Peace be upon you” and „Visit Bethlehem and Jerusalem and engage for peace” the signs declared. Bethlehem lies just south of Jerusalem. Yet Israel’s massive West Bank barrier cast a shadow on the celebrations. The structure, which snakes along the boundary with the West Bank, has divided Bethlehem and prevented tourists from walking into town on the biblical-era road likely used by Jesus and Mary. Shops, restaurants and businesses that once thrived remained shuttered, split off from the rest of the town by the 8-meter concrete wall, which Israel built to prevent suicide bombers from reaching its cities. The Palestinians criticize the barrier, which dips into the West Bank in many places, as a land grab. Ogden and the group of Presbyterians he traveled with made sure to visit the area of the barrier to see what they had read about in the newspapers, and were shocked by what they found. „We were interested in seeing … how the conflict is being played out in the place of Christ’s birth,” Ogden said. „I don’t think anything can quite prepare you for something like that.”