Mon, Dec. 11 2006 06:49 PM ET
Christians Worldwide Urged to Visit Bethlehem this Christmas
By The Associated Press
BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) - Bethlehem's mayor called Monday for
the Christian world to support Palestinians in the beleaguered
town by visiting Jesus' traditional birthplace this Christmas.
Speaking at a press conference in his office across from the
Church of the Nativity, Mayor Victor Batarseh said the town of
30,000 has been hard hit by Israel's West Bank separation
barrier, which cuts Bethlehem residents off from jobs, studies,
medical facilities and relatives in nearby Jerusalem.
"With the closure of Jerusalem to Palestinians and the limitation
of permits granted by the Israeli authorities, unemployment has
soared to 65 percent, which simply means that 65 percent of the
people of Bethlehem live under the poverty line," he said.
Israel says the wall, which blocks the main entrance to Bethlehem
from the north, is necessary to stop Palestinian attacks into
Israel. Several Palestinian suicide bombers from Bethlehem have
blown themselves up in Jerusalem in recent years. Foreign
passport holders are able to cross freely in both directions, but
most Palestinians are forbidden to pass through, as are Israelis,
including Christian Arab visitors to local shrines.
The drop in local tax revenues resulting from unemployment and
the dive in tourism has been exacerbated by a freeze on
international aid imposed on the Palestinian government since the
radical Islamic Hamas movement rose to power in January
elections, the mayor said.
"In light of the prevailing acute financial crisis in which we
are living, the municipality couldn't pay the salaries of its
employees for more than three months now," Batarseh said. "There
will be no new clothes for the employees' children this year, and
Santa will not visit them."
There was not much sign of Christmas cheer in Bethlehem on
Monday, although the Israeli tourism ministry has hung a banner
reading, "Peace be Upon You" underneath one of the armor-plated
military watchtowers atop the battleship-gray concrete wall that
looms over the town's northern neighborhoods.
Palestinian workmen were stringing a few lights in the shape of
reindeer and stars across a downtown street, and some shops had
Christmas trees or lights in their windows, while one boasted a
life-size nativity scene.
But the streets, shops and cafes were mostly empty, and dozens of
taxi drivers idled by the Palestinian side of the wall, waiting
for the occasional group of tourists to pass through the
turnstiles from Israel-controlled Jerusalem.
"My message this year is addressed to the world in general and to
the Christian world in particular, not to forget Bethlehem,"
Batarseh said. "Contribute in breaking this oppressive siege
imposed upon it, through your visits, though pilgrimage to its
Before the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising in 2000,
Bethlehem drew more than 90,000 pilgrims a month, but only 2,500
foreign visitors came last Christmas.
"We pray that the star of the nativity will shine on Bethlehem
once again and guide all people of goodwill toward our little
town, to restore its former glory as place of dignity, a
pilgrimage destination and an open city for peace, " Batarseh said.
A churchgoing Catholic from a leftist party, he said the election
of Hamas makes no difference to Palestinian observance of the
"Nothing has changed," he said. "The tradition will go on,
whatever government comes, whatever its face. Any Palestinian
government respects the values of Christmas, respects the
Christian Palestinians, because we are one people, not Muslims or
Christians." However, there is evidence of a steady exodus of
Christians from Bethlehem, because of economic difficulties as
well as pressure from Muslims.
Despite its cash crisis, the Hamas government has pledged $50,000
to decorate Bethlehem for Christmas, although Batarseh said the
city has yet to receive a cent.
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