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Christmas in Bethlehem: Praying for peace amid ongoing violence

Processions had to pass through Israel's separation wall to reach Bethlehem [AFP]

Date of publication: 25 December, 2015

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Christians gathered in the Palestinian town of Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, on Christmas eve prayed for peace amid the ongoing violence.

Christian faithful from around the world on Thursday descended on the biblical city of Bethlehem for Christmas Eve celebrations at the traditional birthplace of Jesus, trying to lift spirits on a holiday dampened by months of violence.

Crowds were thin and hotel rooms were empty. While the annual festivities in Bethlehem's Manger Square went on, other celebrations in the city were canceled or toned down.

"There's lights, there's carols, but there's an underlying sense of tension," said Paul Haines of Cornwall, England, who arrived in Bethlehem following a four-month trek from Rome.

Bethlehem has been a focal point for clashes between Israeli troops and Palestinian protesters since the start of October.

The city was quiet on Thursday, although violence occured elsewhere in the West Bank. Israeli forces killed three Palestinians they claimed were trying to carry out stabbing or car-ramming attacks, and a fourth Palestinian was killed in clashes with Israeli troops, a Palestinian hospital official said.

Two Israeli security guards and a soldier were wounded.

Lisette Rossman, a 22-year-old student from Albuquerque, New Mexico, said the violence made her think twice about visiting a friend studying in Jerusalem. She said she was glad she made the trip because "it was one of my dreams to come here."

Since mid-September, Israeli forces have killed 124 Palestinians, while Palestinian attacks have killed 20 Israelis.

We're in Bethlehem celebrating Christmas, celebrating the birthday of our lord Jesus Christ. This is the birthplace of the king of peace, so what we want is peace
-Rula Maayah

In Manger Square, local activists placed an olive tree they said was uprooted by the Israeli army in a nearby village, and surrounded it with barbed wire and decorated it with spent tear gas canisters fired by Israeli troops and photographs of Palestinians killed or arrested in recent violence.

"We're in Bethlehem celebrating Christmas, celebrating the birthday of our lord Jesus Christ. This is the birthplace of the king of peace, so what we want is peace," said Rula Maayah, the Palestinian tourism minister.

In the evening, several thousand people crowded into Manger Square, admiring the town's glittering Christmas tree and listening to holiday music played by marching bands and scout troops.

But at 9 pm, traditionally a bustling time of the evening, there were few tourists to drink local wine sold on the square or to eat freshly fried falafel.

In recent years, Bethlehem had enjoyed a relative calm and thousands of revelers and pilgrims poured into Manger Square each Christmas. But vendors and hotel owners complained of sagging business this Christmas season.

Xavier Abu Eid, a Palestinian official, said hotel bookings were down 25 percent from last year, which itself was weak following Israel's war against the besieged Gaza Strip several months earlier.

Some Palestinians hoped holiday cheer would replace the gloom. Said Nustas, dressed in a Santa Claus suit, rang a Christmas bell on a narrow asphalt street as he prepared to deliver gifts from a toy store to children nearby.

The situation is what it is, a war and intifada. But God willing, we'll overcome it and celebrate.
-Said Nustas

"The situation is what it is, a war and intifada," Nustas said. "But God willing, we'll overcome it and celebrate."

Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal led a procession from his Jerusalem headquarters into Bethlehem, passing through a military checkpoint and past Israel's concrete separation wall, which surrounds much of the town.

In Bethlehem, Twal wished "peace and love" for all.

Twal led worshippers in a Midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity, built atop the spot where Christians believe Jesus was born.

In his homily, Twal expressed sympathy for the plight of Palestinians, Syrian refugees and "victims of all forms of terrorism everywhere".

He wished "all inhabitants of the Holy Land" a happy and healthy new year.

"We pray to change the face of the world, that our world be a safe dwelling place and refuge, where justice prevails over rivalry and conflict, mercy over vengeance, charity over hatred," he said.

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