From the Worldwide Faith News archives

[PCUSANEWS] Blue Christmas

Date 17 Dec 2002 16:25:01 -0500

Note #7548 from PCUSA NEWS to PRESBYNEWS:

Blue Christmas
Blue Christmas

Holidays are 'not as happy as usual' in Bethlehem this year

by Alexa Smith

EAST JERUSALEM - Bethlehem isn't skipping Christmas this year, exactly, but
it isn't clear how the town of Christ's birth will observe the holiday. 

What is clear is that many residents are finding little to celebrate this

Just eight days short of Christmas Eve, the Israeli government, the Israeli
army, the tiny town of Bethlehem and the 13 Christian communions that call
the Holy Land home were still discussing whether there will be a holiday
break in the curfew that has had Bethlehem's 28,000 residents under house
arrest for nearly a month. 

"It is going to be a very sad Christmas in Bethlehem," a shopkeeper said the
other day. "There is no Christmas. No trees, no lights. We were supposed to
have some tourists, but they've cancelled. We are not allowed outside our
houses. ...

"There is curfew. How can you have a Christmas celebration?" 

The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) reoccupied the city on Nov. 22 , one day
after a Jerusalem bus was bombed by a 22-year-old whose family had lived in a
rented home on the outskirts of Bethlehem for just a few months. The army
demolished the bomber's house and arrested his father. It also reimposed the
curfew, brought in tanks and armored personnel carriers, began patrolling the
streets in Jeeps.

For the sixth time this year, life in Bethlehem came to a dead halt. 

Why the curfew was renewed is a matter of dispute.
The Israelis claim that militants from across the West Bank took shelter in
Bethlehem when the IDF pulled out as part of a negotiated settlement three
months ago. The Palestinians were drawn to Bethlehem, they say, because other
West Bank towns, like Ramallah, Nablus and Hebron, were still shut down

City officials say that's a lie. Mayor Hanna J. Nasser argues that the
crackdown is a political ploy intended to bolster the Sharon administration's
hard-line image in advance of Israeli elections in January.  

Nasser, long a critic of what he calls "the disastrous militarization" of the
current Intifada, is furious that 150,000 people in the Bethlehem district
are being punished for the actions of a few. 

With only intermittent interruptions amounting to three to six hours a week,
the curfew is keeping Bethlehem's streets empty. Residents live behind
shuttered doors and windows, unable to go to school or work, unable to
maintain a routine. 

Last Saturday and Sunday, the army eased restrictions from morning until
early afternoon. It was the first time breaks were granted two days in a row.

Whether this heralds a Christmas furlough remains to be seen.

With nine days remaining before Christmas, IDF troops have secured Manger
Square, determined to prevent a repeat of the public-relations debacle of
last spring, when Palestinian gunmen sought sanctuary in the Church of the
Nativity, the basilica on the site where Christians believe Jesus was born. 

A senior IDF official told a Jerusalem newspaper last Thursday that troops
will not pull out of Bethlehem by Christmas. 

That contradicted a promise made the previous day by Israeli President Moshe
Katsav to Pope John Paul II, who had appealed for a holiday respite. Katsav
said the IDF would redeploy outside Bethlehem for Christmas if there were no
immediate threat of terrorist attack.

Yoni Peled, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, told the
Presbyterian News Service that it hasn't been decided yet whether any special
provisions will be made for Bethlehem at Christmastime. He said one thing is
certain: Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the Palestinian Authority, won't
attend the traditional midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity, but will
remain confined to his compound in Ramallah. 

If Bethlehem stays "quiet and in order," Peled said, the IDF may allow
civilians more freedom of movement. He said he expects a decision by the end
of this week. 

The birthday of the Prince of Peace seems unlikely to ease the discord here.

Christians in Israel say they don't believe the wider church understands how
the occupation affects their daily lives. 

"The gap between what people are singing about and the reality of life in
this city bothers many people here," said the Rev. Mitri Raheb, the pastor of
the Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem's Old City.

Raheb said what should be under discussion is not a one-day lifting of the
curfew for Christmas, but a lifting of the curfew, period.

"One hundred and fifty thousand people have been living under 24-hour
imprisonment for three weeks," he said. "If Arafat comes or not, that isn't
the issue. He shares the same destiny as the rest of us; he is imprisoned.
And the issue is not whether we allow a few pilgrims to enter Bethlehem. ...
Local people here are not allowed freedom of movement. What's the sense of
opening Bethlehem up for one day for tourism, for people to be able to say
that they celebrated Christmas here? 

"People need to see the ugly face of occupation. I wonder what songs
President Bush will be singing this Christmas?	

Church leaders actually are negotiating three Christmases in Bethlehem. The
Western one, to be presided over by the Latin patriarch, Michel Sabbah, takes
place on Dec. 24 and 25. The second Christmas festival, whose leader is the
patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church, comes on Jan. 6 and 7. And the
Armenian Christmas is celebrated on Jan. 18 and 19.

Greek Orthodox Archbishop Aristarchos said his church has a verbal commitment
from the Israelis to lift the curfew for all three, so that people can
worship at the basilica. 

The chancellor of the Latin Patriarchate, Father Shawki, said he is unaware
of any such commitment - and even if one has been made, it can be withdrawn
in a heartbeat.

In any case, he added, "We don't just want them to lift the curfew. We want
them out of Bethlehem. People are suffering. Really. Really. Really." 
Shawki pointed out the same in true of the residents of other West Bank
cities, including Jenin, Hebron and Nablus.

The patriarch said he will go to Bethlehem for midnight Mass on Christmas
Eve, but that won't make it Christmas. "Christmas means justice," he said.
"No justice, no Christmas."

Mayor Nasser is upset about Israel's unilateral decision to nullify the
"Bethlehem First" agreement of last Aug. 19, under which the curfew was
lifted and Palestinians took responsibility for security in Bethlehem. The
IDF withdrew to the city's perimeter. People were free to move inside the
city, but not to leave it. 

"I don't see the justification," he said, rejecting the notion that his town
is a haven for extremists. 

For the moment he's focusing on the smaller picture: How to plan Bethlehem's
Christmas, if and when the curfew is lifted.

International choirs are awaiting the downbeat hold. The Christmas tree
outside the basilica is bare. Holiday activities are on hold.

Eighty-year-old Michael Zebaneh said he has seen a lot of Christmases in
Bethlehem since he moved there in 1950. He is hoping his permit will come
through so he can visit his daughter in Jordan over the holidays. Yet another
waiting game. 
But he's done lots of waiting in his long life. 
He wishes the international church would do more on behalf of the
Palestinians under house arrest on the West Bank.

"Everyone knows that the only way to solve this is for the Israelis to
withdraw from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip," he said. "It is the only way
to stop the massacres every day, the killing of Palestinian people. 

"Did you know that five Palestinians were killed yesterday? Did you know that
a few days ago in Gaza, 10 more died? There is killing every day, and among
the dead are children." 

Zebaneh, who plays the organ at his church, said celebrating this Christmas
will be a challenge: "The heart is not as happy as usual."

(Alexa Smith is on long-term assignment for several months in
Israel/Palestine, covering the situation there in depth for the Presbyterian
News Service. She is based in East Jerusalem.)

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