Sunday , December 10, 2006
Hamas Government Promises to Spruce Up Jesus' Birthplace for
BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Islamic militants may be in charge, but
that doesn't mean there won't be Christmas this year.
The cash-strapped Hamas government is promising $50,000 to dress
up Jesus' traditional birthplace for the holiday, more than twice
the amount spent in previous years.
Yet even the extra cash — if Hamas pays up — may not be enough to
bring Christmas cheer to Bethlehem, hit hard by the last six
years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting. The biblical town is now
walled in by Israel's West Bank separation barrier, poverty is
deepening and Christians are leaving Bethlehem in droves.
Palestinian Tourism Minister Joudeh Morkos has modest expectations.
Last year, only about 2,500 foreign visitors came on Christmas,
but he's counting on the usual busloads of Christians from Arab
towns in Israel to boost turnout. Before the outbreak of the
Palestinian uprising in 2000, Bethlehem drew more than 90,000
pilgrims a month.
With just two weeks until Christmas, Bethlehem is only sparsely
Bethlehem Mayor Victor Batarseh, a churchgoing Catholic from a
leftist party, said Saturday he will not start decorating until
he has the money in hand.
A few neon stars are nailed to storefronts on the main streets.
The only decoration on the Lutheran Christmas Church in a busy
market area is spray-painted graffiti below the pointed steeple
that reads "Islamic Jihad" — a Muslim militant group.
In Manger Square, next to the Church of the Nativity built over
Jesus' traditional birthplace, only two of six souvenir shops and
a small cafe were open on a recent afternoon. Many other nearby
shops were closed as well. A few tourists who sat outside a cafe,
braving the dreary weather, were thronged by peddlers trying to
sell olive wood crucifixes.
Abir Karram, who sells traditional hand-embroidered Palestinian
dresses, can no longer afford to pay the $115 monthly rent for
her workshop. Two years ago, she had 30 women working part time
for her, designing and embroidering gowns using ancient patterns.
Now she has no workers.
Karram and other merchants say six years of economic hardship
during the violence, including Israeli travel bans, have been
compounded by an international economic boycott of the government
imposed 10 months ago when Hamas came to power. The militant
group has struggled to pay salaries to 165,000 public servants,
who are the backbone of the economy.
"The wall stopped tourists and Arabs from Israel," she said,
referring to the separation barrier, which is meant to stop
Palestinian suicide bombings, but also cuts across Bethlehem's
main trade artery.
"Now people here have no salaries. It's like a well that finished
drawing water," Karram said.
The economic squeeze has driven away growing numbers of
Christians, already a minority of 35 percent in this town of 30,000.
Mike Salman, a Bethlehem resident and amateur chronicler of
Christian affairs, said about 20 percent of the town's 1,000
Catholic families have left in the past six years. Salman said
he's seen a similar rate of emigration from other Christian
A 2004 U.N. report estimated about 10 percent of Christians had left.
Amal Bandak, 39, a Christian, said her family of five wants to
return to Chile, their home until two years ago. The Bandaks had
come back to Bethlehem because her husband needed a back
operation, more affordable in the West Bank.
Amal's daughters, 13 and 17, will have what should be a storybook
Christmas, marching in the traditional Girl Scouts parade and
attending services at the Church of the Nativity.
Yet they enjoyed the holiday more in Chile, she said.
"I used to tell the children of all the wonderful things that
happen here at Christmas, how everybody comes to town, the family
visits. But last Christmas, they went to sleep weeping. They said
it was the saddest Christmas they ever had. It broke my heart,"
Hamas' generous promise of funding has drawn mixed reactions
among local Christians.
Some said they suspect the Islamic militants hoped to score a few
points with the international community.
Salman, a Palestinian Catholic, said Hamas should have given the
money to the poor, but it was a sign of goodwill.
"I appreciate it, because Bethlehem is the symbol of peace," he said.
The acting finance minister, Samir Abu Eisha, said he will write
the $50,000 check in the coming days.
Last year, the outgoing government run by Hamas' archrival Fatah,
did not give Bethlehem any money and the town had to rely mostly
on international donations. The year before, it received $20,000
from the government.
"We don't fund any Islamic celebrations, but we want to fund this
Christian festival, which is a special part of Bethlehem," said
Abu Eisha. "As a Palestinian government, we hope our Christian
brothers have a happy celebration. They are an integral part of
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