Sad Christmas in Bethlehem

Despite brilliantly sunny skies, there was little cheer this Christmas Day in the town where Jesus was born. Tourists stayed away, frightened by more than a year of violence, and Israel prevented Yasser Arafat from making his annual pilgrimage.

Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah conducted a Christmas morning Mass, and an afternoon procession was planned from Manger Square to Shepherds' Field, where biblical tradition says the herders watching their sheep were awestruck by news of the Christ child's birth.

But with pilgrims and tourists almost entirely absent, there were few Christmas decorations and Manger Square had reverted by midmorning back to a parking lot as local residents, many of them Muslims, milled about the area, conducting business as usual.

"In spite of the tanks, the closure and the bombardment that your town Bethlehem has faced, I say to you all merry Christmas and wish you a happy new year," Sabbah told congregants at the morning Mass, referring to Israeli military actions during the 15 months of violence.

Sabbah also asked Christians to remain in Bethlehem, which many have left in recent years. "Protect your Palestinian Christian identity and ... stay in this holy town which witnessed the birth of Jesus Christ," Sabbah said.

"I don't feel the joy of Christmas this year, but I'm trying my best for my children to enjoy it," said Bethlehem resident George Jacman, a 34-year-old father of four.

On Christmas Eve, a few thousand people gathered in Manger Square, most of them local Palestinians. Posters of Arafat and Palestinian flags outnumbered Christmas decorations in front of the fortress-like fourth-century Church of the Nativity, marking the traditional birthplace of Jesus.

Politics overwhelmed the celebration. A high point of the evening was a speech by Arafat, who is marooned in the town of Ramallah, 12 miles to the north, by Israeli restrictions. Palestinians in Manger Square watching the speech on TV applauded after Arafat blasted the Israelis.

Riding a wave of international criticism of Israel's decision, Arafat complained, "The Israeli tanks, the barriers and the rifles of the oppressors have prevented me from sharing with you our annual celebration on this divine and blessed occasion."

He said Israel has laid siege not only to Bethlehem, but also to the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem. "There will never be any security for any worshipper in the shadow of a tank," Arafat said.

An empty chair in the front row, a black and white checkered keffiyeh headdress draped across it, symbolized Arafat's absence during the Midnight Mass at St. Catherine's Church next to the Church of the Nativity, built over Jesus' traditional birth grotto. In front of the chair was a lectern, padded with gold upholstery, and a sign with Arafat's name.

Another empty chair was reserved for Bethlehem Mayor Hanna Nasser, who boycotted the service because Arafat was banned.

Some congregants fell to their knees during the service. An elderly nun sat to one side of the church, her head bowed, hands folded in prayer. The warmly dressed crowd of about 700 people finished the service with a rendition of the carol "Silent Night."

"You see the scars of the fighting here ... walking through the city you appreciate the situation these people live in," said Belgian Thomas Gilbert, 30, who made the two-hour pilgrimage from Jerusalem to Bethlehem by foot.

Arafat has been stuck in Ramallah since Dec. 3, when Israel responded to grisly Palestinian suicide attacks in Jerusalem and Haifa that killed 26 people, including three bombers, by destroying Arafat's helicopters and tightening a chokehold on Palestinian towns.

Last week Arafat called for an end to the violence in a televised speech, and seven Palestinians were killed in clashes between the Palestinian police and supporters of Islamic militant groups.

But Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government has maintained that Arafat has done far from enough, and on Monday banned him from traveling over land to Bethlehem, insisting that he must first arrest the assassins of an Israeli Cabinet minister who was gunned down in October.

It was the first time Arafat, a Muslim, has missed the Midnight Mass since 1995, when Israel turned the town over to Palestinian control a few days before Christmas, under interim peace accords.

The decision was criticized by the Vatican, the European Union, the French government, six Christian denominations in the Holy Land, several Israeli Cabinet ministers and even Israeli President Moshe Katsav — a member of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's own hard-line Likud Party.

Ellen McCloskey, 69, from Pittsburgh, said she traveled to the birthplace of Jesus because "this is where it happened. He's the truth, and, my goodness, if we ever needed truth, it's today." She was one of the only foreigners to brave the trip to Bethlehem this year.

In quieter times, thousands of pilgrims and tourists thronged the square, once the town's central parking lot, filling souvenir shops and restaurants, listening to choirs from around the world and watching the Midnight Mass on a closed-circuit TV screen.

Spending millions of dollars raised for the cause, Bethlehem remodeled Manger Square in time for the millennium celebration, expecting millions of tourists during the 2000th year after the birth of Jesus.

But the Palestinian uprising broke out in September 2000, and the dream of tourism and prosperity was dashed as pilgrims stayed away, hesitating to run the gamut of Israeli roadblocks and Palestinian riots.

Now, souvenir shops in prime locations, like Tony Michael's at a corner of Manger Square right next to the Church of the Nativity, are empty.

"No business, no people," he said sadly. "It's very bad in Bethlehem."