BETHLEHEM - Hundreds of people packed the Church of the Nativity on Monday to celebrate Christmas at Jesus' traditional birthplace, but few foreign tourists were among the worshippers, putting a damper on the holiday cheer.
Bells pealed, and decorative lights shone in Manger Square. But most of the visitors were Palestinian Christians or Israeli Arabs. Foreign visitors, who are critical to Bethlehem's economy, were largely absent, apparently deterred by recent Palestinian infighting and years of conflict with Israel.
The tensions did little to dash the spirits of foreign pilgrims who made the journey to the Holy Land.
"The experience was incredible," said Nick Parker, 24, of Goodland, Kansas, who was visiting Bethlehem for the first time. "I could feel the true spirit of Christmas here in Bethlehem."
Father Larry Sullivan, 40, a Roman Catholic prelate from Chicago, said Christmas in Bethlehem was all the more special because of the sense of unity that emerged from the conflict.
"It was a very moving experience," said Sullivan, who was also on his first visit to Bethlehem. "The spirit of Christmas is filled with great enthusiasm and great happiness, people from all walks of life coming here to share this experience."
For local residents, the atmosphere was gloomier.
"Yesterday, people were afraid of the political situation," said Jane Zakariyeh of Bethlehem, referring to Palestinian infighting that has caused the deaths of 17 Palestinians in recent weeks.
Shop owners, who make most of their income during the Christmas season, complained this year was among the worst in memory.
"The economic situation is very much affecting the Christmas atmosphere here," said Mary Bader, who came to celebrate from Jerusalem.
The Palestinian Ministry of Tourism said 3,500 pilgrims arrived in Bethlehem this year - only a small fraction of the tens of thousands who would arrive before Israeli-Palestinian violence broke out in late 2000. The diminished number of visitors is a big blow to the city of 30,000.
During Christmas Eve celebrations in Jesus' birthplace, the top Roman Catholic official in the Holy Land appealed for Palestinians to halt their recent infighting and called for an end to Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed.
In an address, Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah urged Palestinians to "put your weapons down and return to talking."
"Shooting between brothers is not the road to freedom," he said.
Sabbah offered a special blessing to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, who attended the ceremony, and warned of the "fratricidal struggles" plaguing the Palestinians.
"Christmas is saying to us: Put down your arms," Sabbah said.
Sabbah spoke as the first Christmas in Gaza the under Hamas Islamist movement was marred by the worst internal fighting and economic conditions in a decade.
Gaza's annual Christmas parade and midnight mass have been cancelled. For the first time, no Christmas decorations adorn the giant pine tree in the main square.
"The conflict here has lasted too long," Sabbah said in his homily at midnight Mass. "It is high time that the leaders who have our destinies in their hands in this land - specifically, the Palestinian and Israeli leaders as well as those of the international community - it is time for all of them to take new measures that will bring an end to the long phase of death in our history and lead us into a new phase in the history of this Holy Land."
Sabbah asked all political leaders and military adversaries, including those "who are classified as extremists and terrorists " to "examine their conscience in order to enter a new path that puts an end to bloodshed, death, and, in these days, to new internal quarrels."
Sabbah also lamented the shrinking of the Christian population in the Holy Land. He said the exodus of Christians stems not from difficulties with the larger Jewish and Muslim communities, but first and foremost due to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
"Helping the two peoples to begin a new era of peace, justice, and reconciliation in the region will assure the future of Christians in this land," he said.
Hamas-Fatah violence mars Christmas for Gaza Christians In Gaza, Christian residents lamented the dour mood. "We do not feel the cheer of Christmas," said Um Tareq, a Greek Orthodox woman.
"The general atmosphere in Gaza is a sad one. We used to see Palestinian children killed by Israeli bullets. Now they are killed by Palestinian bullets. How can we celebrate Christmas in such conditions?" asked Manuel Musallam, a Catholic priest.
Gaza's estimated 3,000 Christians live peacefully among 1.4 million Muslims. But most Christmas festivities in Gaza have been scaled back to protest at the fighting between Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah faction and forces loyal to the ruling Hamas.
Several hundred people usually participate in the annual Gaza parade. Muslim clerics and government representatives have taken part in previous years. The tree is traditionally decorated with multi-coloured lights.
Most of Gaza's Christians are concentrated in Gaza City, where they own shops and businesses, and attend Sunday mass at two churches. Some of Gaza's best-known doctors, lawyers, jewellers and judges are Christians.
The vast majority of them are Greek Orthodox, and there is also a small community of 200 Catholics.
"We are well-respected, well protected and well behaved," one Catholic said.
Gaza Christians are not associated with Hamas, though some are affiliated with Fatah and Marxist groups. They appear not to have been involved in the internal violence to date.
Members of the community say they have as much religious freedom under Hamas as they had when Fatah was in control of the Palestinian Authority.
Um Tareq's children lost three classmates, gunned down by militants because their father was a top Abbas intelligence officer.
She said their Christmas was ruined. "My kids are still in shock at what is happening on the ground between the Palestinians. It was never like that," she said.
Battered Bethlehem on a gloomy Christmas Marching bands, children dressed as Santa Claus and clergymen in magenta skullcaps gathered in the center of Bethlehem on Sunday to celebrate Christmas Eve, doing their best to dispel the gloom hovering over Jesus's traditional birthplace.
In an annual custom, Bethlehem's residents enacted Christmas rituals that seem out of place in the Middle East. Palestinian Scouts marched through the streets, some wearing kilts and pompom-topped berets, playing drums and bagpipes as they passed by inflatable red-suited Santas.
Other aspects of this Bethlehem Christmas, however, could take place nowhere else. To get to the town, Sabbah rode in his motorcade through a huge steel gate in the separation fence. Two Border Police troops closed the gate behind him.
"God wants us all to be peacemakers. He wants every believer who has faith in God Jewish, Muslim or Christian to work to make peace," Sabbah said in his annual Christmas address at his Jerusalem office before departing for Bethlehem. "Our leaders so far have only made war, they haven't made peace."
Bethlehem's tourist industry has been hit hard by the last six years of Israeli-Palestinian violence; by the barrier, which Israel began building in 2002 to stop suicide bombers; and also by internal Palestinian frictions.
This Christmas finds the Palestinian Authority governed, for the first time, by the militant Islamic group Hamas. To alleviate Christian fears, Hamas promised that it would send $50,000 to decorate Manger Square for the holiday. But it was not clear if the money arrived.
There were fewer Christmas decorations than in the past, and for the first time, no Christmas carols were piped over the loudspeaker system.
Standing outside his empty souvenir shop, George Baboul said that this is the "worst Christmas" he has seen in over 30 years. Baboul's shop, the "Bethlehem Star Store," is in a prime location, but he said that there is no business.
"No tourists are coming," said Baboul, 72. "I don't know what's the reason for that. There are no problems, Bethlehem is safe, but tourists are afraid to come."
Bethlehem's mayor, Victor Batarseh, said that his city would celebrate Christmas despite the hardship. "With all this oppression, this economic stress, physical stress, psychological stress, we are defying all these obstacles and celebrating Christmas," Batarseh said.
Each year, Israel eases travel restrictions to facilitate access to Bethlehem. Last week, the Tourism Ministry said that it would provide free transportation between Jerusalem and Bethlehem on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
The ministry forecast that 18,000 tourists would visit Bethlehem this year, up from 16,000 last year, but far below the tens of thousands of people who thronged Manger Square in the 1990s.
But by Sunday afternoon, there were only about 1,000 people in Manger Square, nearly all of them locals. The only large foreign contingent was made up of around 200 Filipino Christians who work in Israel and made the short trip to Bethlehem to celebrate Christmas.
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