Christian faithful flock to Bethlehem birthplace of Jesus
BETHLEHEM, West Bank: The roar of drums and bagpipes echoed through a hopeful Bethlehem on Monday as the faithful began flocking to the traditional birthplace of Jesus for the annual Christmas celebrations. The Palestinians are hoping the number of tourists and the income they bring will make it the best Christmas since the start of the second Palestinian uprising in September 2000. Despite an eight-metre (25 foot) concrete wall that encircles much of the city - Israel’s controversial barrier erected in the wake of the uprising - Bethlehem is set to double the number of pilgrims and tourists this year. “Last year there were a lot of problems, security problems. God willing, this year will be better, because of Annapolis, because of everything else,” Adnan Sobh, a souvenir shop owner, told AFP under sunny, crisp skies. The renewed sense of calm convinced Jacques Keutgen, a Belgian-born director at the local Holy Family Hospital, to bring his entire extended family of 17 people to celebrate Christmas in the West Bank city just south of Jerusalem, “The security situation is much better than it has been in years,” Keutgen, who has been based in Bethlehem for four and a half years, says, adding that it was important to support the local Palestinian economy. But like all visitors to Bethlehem his family had to enter through Israel’s controversial separation wall — a towering reminder that despite the increased tourist numbers, life for many Palestinians in this city is grim.
“They have to see the wall to know how the Palestinian people are affected by this political situation,” Keutgen says. The barrier has confiscated farm land, uprooted olive trees, isolated the town from Jerusalem and helped to quicken emigration and keep unemployment at more than 50 percent. But while Christmas last year took place under the shadow of deadly Palestinian factional clashes and continuing Israeli incursions, Jesus’s birthday this year is taking place amid cautious hope accompanying the renewal of Middle East peace talks at a November conference in the US city of Annapolis. Several local marching bands and boy scout troops kicked off the day’s proceedings marching in central Manger Square, with celebrations set to culminate with midnight mass. Dozens of Palestinian police officers were deployed around the square and had closed off the roads around the Church of the Nativity, built on the site of the manger where Jesus is said to have been born. Tourism has grown 60 percent this year, and 30,000-40,000 tourists - double the number last year - are expected to visit the town where the Bible says Jesus was born in a stable after Mary and Joseph found no room at the Inn.One Bethlehem olive wood workshop is modelling Nativity scenes complete with a replica separation barrier blocking the wise men from getting to the stable - the item has virtually sold out at a British charity selling it. At the Gaza Strip, hundreds of Christians flocked to the heavily armed crossing with Israel on Monday after securing permission to leave the Hamasrun territory for Christmas. Married couples laden with suitcases and young children, teenagers with parents, and grandparents wrapped up against the chill struggled to walk unaided on the long muddy path from the main road to the Erez checkpoint. Most were hoping to pray on Christmas Eve in Bethlehem, the small town in the West Bank where the Bible says Jesus was born. Others were hoping to visit relatives in the occupied West Bank, Israel or Jerusalem. “We only got the permission last night. It took a month to come through, so then we had to immediately prepare everything and pack,” said Rania Sabieh, guarding the luggage and her two children as her husband went to register. “We’re going to Bethlehem to pray. For one week. We have friends there, but then we’ll come back to Gaza. My husband doesn’t have a job but the children need to go back to school here,” said Rania. Israel has imposed a total closure on Gaza since Hamas - a radical Islamist movement officially sworn to the destruction of the Jewish state - seized armed control of the territory six months ago, routing Palestinian moderates. Declaring the territory a “hostile entity”, Israel has imposed cuts on fuel deliveries and allows in only essential humanitarian supplies. The United Nations has warned that Israeli restrictions on Gaza are pushing the local economy to the brink of collapse. Israel has granted permits to 520 of about 3,500 Christians living in Gaza to leave in order to celebrate Christmas and the New Year in Israel and the West Bank until January 2. “Today we are coordinating for more than 500 Christians in Gaza to go to Israel and the West Bank for the Christmas celebrations,” Israeli Colonel Meir Press told AEP by telephone. “The Christians will be leaving today. It’s a special privilege,” said Shadi Yassin, spokesman for the Israeli military administration. “They will be receiving a special permit that allows them to travel between the West Bank and Israel freely and that way they can celebrate and participate in Christmas and New Year as they choose,” he said. - AIP