No Peace but Measure of 'Good Will' for Christmas in Bethlehem

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:14 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - There may not be Israeli-Palestinian peace, but in Bethlehem this Christmas, Israel is attempting to show its "good will" toward Palestinian Christians, Israeli and church sources said, despite the continuing threat of terror attacks.

For years, Israel facilitated Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem, providing security and transportation for pilgrims to the city.

In 1995, Israel turned control of the city over to the Palestinian Authority, and the PA took over responsibility for the celebrations. PA Chairman Yasser Arafat, a Muslim whose wife Suha is a Christian, became a regular honored guest at Christmas Eve services in Bethlehem.

But for the last four Christmases, pilgrims and tourists in the city in general have been few, due to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the security situation.

Last year, Israel was once again in control of the city. This year, Israeli forces are completely outside the city, since Israel turned over security control of Bethlehem to the Palestinians in July.

Nevertheless, Israel is willing to do its part, said Foreign Ministry spokesman Jonathan Peled.

"Unfortunately, for the past several years, Christmas celebrations have been overshadowed by conflict," Peled told reporters in Jerusalem.

"As [has] always been the case, Israel attaches great important to Christmas being celebrated in Bethlehem with the maximum attendance of worshippers, pilgrims and tourists from all over the world, of course.

"Even though Israel doesn't maintain any presence in Bethlehem and is not involved directly in holiday celebrations there, many branches of the government and the military...are taking active steps to promote, help promote and facilitate holiday worship in Bethlehem this year, all in a spirit of good will and cooperation," Peled said.

Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, a Palestinian and the senior Catholic clergyman for the region - who is often critical of Israel - said that Israel was indeed making efforts to show "good will" this season.

"The Israeli authorities are showing their very good will in order to encourage and to allow all the festivities to go on," Sabbah told reporters in Jerusalem earlier this week following his annual Christmas address.

"We wish that all this good will [shown] for the festivities be shown for all the human persons," said Sabbah.

For the Christmas holidays, which extend here to cover three Christmases from December 24 to January 19, Israel has granted freedom of movement for Christians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, allowing them to visit Bethlehem and relatives in other places in the territories and within Israel, the Israeli army said.

Some 3 percent of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are Christian, according to Palestinian figures. In the Gaza Strip, only a few thousand Christians live among 1.2 million Muslims.

This is the first time in three years the Christians will be allowed to attend Christmas festivities in Bethlehem, Israel Radio reported.

Roman Catholics and Protestants celebrate Christmas Eve and Day on December 24 and 25; the Orthodox Christmas is celebrated January 6-7; and the Armenian Christmas is celebrated January 18-19.

Israelis and Israeli journalists - forbidden for the past two years from entering PA-controlled areas - are also being allowed into Bethlehem for the holiday.

Prior to the outbreak of the Palestinian violence three years ago, choirs from around the world used to come to sing in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve.

In lieu of that celebration, the Jerusalem municipality has sponsored Christmas caroling for the last three years, led by the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem on Christmas Eve in the plaza outside of the municipality.

This year, in addition to the singing, the program featured scenes from the Nativity, including live camels, a donkey and flock of sheep.

"This is the land where Jesus was born, and for millions of Christians around the world, His birth in the Holy Land is very important," said ICEJ Director Malcolm Hedding. "This heart-warming event, in the heart of Jerusalem, has enabled us to share the joy of this season."

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