Birthplace of Christ is at war

Ross Dunn
Ecumenical News International

Plans for Christmas festivities in Bethlehem, the cradle of Christianity, have come to a premature end as the town remains virtually sealed off from the outside world because of violence raging in the region.

This West Bank town has been under siege and isolated from the rest of the world since the start of the Palestinian uprising against Israeli rule, almost two months ago.

Bethlehem is only a 10-minute drive from Jerusalem. But reaching the place is now no easy matter. Foreign tourists who wish to make the journey – and there are almost none willing to do so – have to seek special permission to cross through an Israeli military checkpoint at the entrance to the West Bank.

If approval is given by the Israeli soldiers, barricades are temporarily lifted. But the situation in the town is at best bleak and at worst life-threatening. On the main street of Bethlehem all shops and restaurants are closed, as they have been since the start of the violence.

The town’s mayor, Hanna Nasser, does not believe the situation will improve before Christmas.

Tourists have cancelled their visits and are no longer coming to Bethlehem, he said. Even for Christmas, he added, there are likely to be only “a few hundred” people this year instead of the 20,000 or so foreign tourists and worshippers who normally gather in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve.

On the days that there are no clashes in Bethlehem, it is possible to reach the town’s central plaza, Manger Square. The area is adjacent to the Church of the Nativity, where tradition holds that Jesus was born. Instead of Christian tourists, angry Islamic activists gather in Manger Square for political meetings, an area that had been dressed up to showcase celebrations for the 2000th anniversary year of Christ’s birth.

Because of the clashes, the activities planned for the last three months of the anniversary year had been “cancelled altogether”, Nasser said.

Miguel Murado, a spokesperson for the Bethlehem 2000 project, set up by the Palestinian Authority to organise events to mark the new millennium, said that the high point of the Christmas Eve celebrations featuring choirs from around the world have been cancelled. There was some debate about whether local choirs would replace them as a tribute to the people of Bethlehem, but this was far from clear because of the ongoing violence in the West Bank and Israel’s military closure of the Palestinian areas.

He said all religious services would go ahead as planned but it is doubtful whether there would be any festivities in Manger Square. “All festive activities have been cancelled for the present time,” he said. “We cannot celebrate under this situation.”

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