Orthodox Christmas in Bethlehem is white, but gloomy

Monday, January 7th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) _ A light frosting of snow greeted Orthodox Christians leaving Christmas morning services in the traditional birthplace of Jesus on Monday, with the chill in the air matched by the gloom of a town under siege.

The Church of the Nativity, built over Jesus' traditional birth grotto, was less than half full and the congregants were all local people. Tourists and pilgrims have been kept away by Israeli checkpoints and 15 months of Israeli-Palestinian fighting.

``The season has ended with no work, neither tourists nor pilgrims,'' restaurant owner Nasri Kanawati said. ``It was dark during Christmas but thank God we did not lose our hope and we will wait for next year with patience, hoping that Bethlehem will live in peace and joy.''

The traditional Midnight Mass, attended by Greek Orthodox Patriarch Eireneos I, was also thinly attended. ``God of peace, give our land peace,'' congregants prayed.

Bethlehem has seen a good share of the fighting. The Church of the Nativity has been hit by bullets and a Palestinian was shot dead in the adjoining Manger Square.

Inside, in the section reserved for dignitaries one seat stood empty on Monday, in silent testimony to the forced absence of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat who is confined to his West Bank headquarters in Ramallah by an Israeli travel ban.

The chair was marked ``His Excellency President Yasser Arafat'' and draped with a black-and-white checkered keffiyeh headdress, Arafat's trademark headgear.

Arafat, a regular at the services since the Palestinians gained control of Bethlehem in 1995, was also barred from attending Christmas Eve celebrations on Dec. 24 despite international criticism of the Israeli move.

Israel says it will keep him in Ramallah until he arrests those responsible for the October assassination of an Israeli Cabinet minister.

Russia's Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying the Israeli ban has served to keep tensions high between Israel and the Palestinians. The statement added a fresh request for Israel to lift travel restrictions on the Palestinian leader.

Bethlehem and Ramallah are only about 12 miles apart, and Arafat's Palestinian Authority controls both West Bank towns. But Israeli troops control the roads between them.

Israel eased its choke-hold on Palestinian roads last week ahead of a four-day visit by United States envoy Anthony Zinni, but since September 2000 residents of Bethlehem, like most West Bankers, have been unable to travel even to neighboring towns.

The blockade has devastated the Palestinian economy and Bethlehem, which depends heavily on tourism, has been extremely hard hit. Israel says the restrictions are necessary to prevent attacks by Palestinian militants on Israelis.

In past Christmas celebrations, Bethlehem was filled with thousands of pilgrims and foreign tourists. Christmas decorations and religious icons filled the streets. Shops and houses were lit, and bustling restaurants stayed open late.

This Christmas the streets were largely devoid of decorations, save the Palestinian flags. Hotels and restaurants stood empty. Souvenir shops that depend heavily on the holiday season were shuttered.