December 25, 2012

Thousands celebrate in Bethlehem

The West Bank town has a joyous holiday season with the U.N. recognition of the Palestinian state.

By DALIA NAMMARI, The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

Fouad Twal
click image to enlarge

Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad Twal waves to the crowds before Christmas celebrations in the West Bank town of Bethlehem on Monday. Twal, the top Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land, celebrated the United Nations’ recent recognition of a Palestinian state in his annual pre-Christmas remarks.

The Associated Press

Audra Kasparian, 45, from Salt Lake City, Utah, called her visit to Bethlehem "a life event to cherish forever. It is one of those events that is great to be a part of."

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas also visited Bethlehem and said "peace will prevail from the birthplace of Jesus, and we wish everyone peace and happiness," according to the official Palestinian Wafa news agency.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a special Christmas greeting, wishing Christians "a year of security, prosperity and peace."

Christmas is the high point of the year in Bethlehem, which, like the rest of the West Bank, is struggling to recover from the economic hard times that followed the violent Palestinian uprising against Israel that broke out in late 2000.

Tourists and pilgrims who were scared away by the fighting have been returning in larger numbers. Last year's Christmas Eve celebration produced the highest turnout in more than a decade, with some 100,000 visitors, including foreign workers and Arab Christians from Israel.

The Israeli Tourism Ministry predicted a 25 percent drop from that level this year, following last month's clash between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza, which put a chill on tourist arrivals. Foreign tourists heading to Bethlehem must pass through Israel or the Israel-controlled border crossing into the West Bank from Jordan.

Outside the town's quaint Manger Square, Bethlehem is a drab, sprawling town with a dwindling Christian base -- a far cry from the pastoral village of biblical times.

About 22,000 Palestinians live in Bethlehem, according to the town council, but combined with several surrounding communities it has a population of some 50,000 people.

Overall, there are only about 50,000 Christians in the West Bank, less than 3 percent of the population, the result of a lower birthrate and increased emigration. Bethlehem's Christians make up only a third of its residents, down from 75 percent a few decades ago.

Elias Joha, a 44-year-old Christian who runs a souvenir store, said even with the U.N. recognition, this year's celebrations were sad for him. He said most of his family has left, and that if he had the opportunity, he would do the same.

"These celebrations are not even for Christians because there are no Christians. It is going from bad to worse from all sides ... we are not enjoying Christmas as before."

Located on the southeastern outskirts of Jerusalem, Bethlehem has the highest unemployment in the West Bank, but the tourist boom of Christmas offered a brief reprieve. Officials say all 34 hotels in the town are fully booked for the Christmas season, including 13 new ones built this year.

Israel turned Bethlehem over to Palestinian civil control a few days before Christmas in 1995, and since then, residents have been celebrating the holiday regardless of their religion. Many Muslims took part in the celebration Monday.

Christians across the region marked the holiday in nations such as Iraq, as well.

 

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