Christmas grim and full of fear

SUN JOURNAL

Bethlehem: New tensions and violence have choked off the stream of Christian tourists whose spending supported the town's economy.

December 20, 2000|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BETHLEHEM - Manger Square, the cradle of Christianity, is also the heart of a struggling Palestinian tourist industry that is this town's lifeblood.

In good times, thousands of tourists and pilgrims a day amble across the wide stone-paved plaza, framed by the giant stone Church of the Nativity complex, the Omari Mosque, a civic and exhibition center, and a long row of restaurants and gift shops.

Most of the visitors stoop low through the Door of Humility to enter the sixth-century Church of the Nativity. Then, crossing a mosaic floor, they descend narrow stone stairs into one of the holiest places in Christendom, the cave where, according to Christian tradition, Mary found shelter to give birth to Jesus.

Emerging from the other end of the grotto, pilgrims peer into the Church of St. Catherine, site of the annual Christmas Eve Mass.

City officials hoped this winter would be the best of times. It would be a monthlong celebration of the Latin (Dec. 25) and Orthodox (Jan. 7) Christmases and would draw choirs and musicians from around the world, boost pilgrimage to record levels and chip away at Israel's dominance of the tourism industry.

Manger Square would be the focal point, alive with music and colorful processions.

But the Palestinian uprising that began at the end of September altered expectations. Bethlehem is moribund, having attracted 3,000 tourists in all of last month, fewer than on "any day in a bad year," says Nabil Kassis, the Palestinian minister in charge of Bethlehem development.

The city and its surrounding villages, the heart of the Holy Land's shrinking Christian community, have been caught in the middle of some of the worst fighting of the three-month Palestinian uprising, and the city's 21,000 residents see nothing to celebrate.

At least 15 Palestinians and three Israeli soldiers have died in or near Bethlehem, and hundreds of residents have been injured.

"Palestinians don't celebrate usually when you've had a death in the family," says Kassis.

Streets that in years past were decked with gaudy Christmas decorations bear the scars of conflict. Many nights, Palestinian gunmen in neighboring Beit Jala fire across the valley at the apartments of Jews in the community of Gilo, drawing deafening, sometimes deadly fire from Israeli tanks.

A similar scene plays out between Beit Sahour, to the east, and a nearby Israeli army base. Closer to Manger Square, the heavily guarded Rachel's Tomb, a Jewish shrine to the Biblical matriarch, is surrounded by the rubble and broken barricades of frequent clashes.

An Israeli checkpoint at the entrance to town keeps Palestinians in and Israelis out. Tourists may venture toward Manger Square but risk being told at any moment that the main route is a "closed military area."

In any case, the tourism industry has been hit hard, and hardly any visitors try to make the trip. An occasional bus brings Jewish pilgrims to Rachel's Tomb, but passengers are given strict instructions on what to do if the bus draws rocks or gunfire.

This city lives off tourism, a stone-cutting industry, small workshops and the farms, fruit orchards and olive groves that surround it.

But hotels and restaurants stand empty. Souvenir sellers are idle, as are the workshops that supply them with Nativity scenes and crucifixes carved from local olive wood and boxes embossed with mother-of-pearl. Streets and alleys draw the aimless unemployed.

"We have no economy at all," says Michel Shomali, legal adviser to the governor of the Bethlehem region. He estimates losses at "not less than $100 million."

A year ago, Bethlehem's spirits soared. The Palestinian Authority, lacking its hoped-for capital in East Jerusalem, poured money and effort into making Bethlehem a showplace.

For last year's holidays, luxury hotels were half-built and road improvements unfinished, but alleys in the heart of the city boasted new cobblestones and old walls were newly buffed to a pale beige.

On Christmas Eve, thousands surged into Manger Square for a carnival-like prelude to the traditional Midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity. A week later, the square was host to the best New Year's bash in the region, with bands and fireworks. Officials hoped 1.5 million tourists would visit this year.

Hopes rose in the spring, when Pope John Paul II visited the city, joining the tradition of Christian pilgrimage that began in the second century, as reflected in the steeples and crosses of the city's skyline.

The pope rallied Palestinian Christians and Muslims (the town is half-Muslim) with a Mass in Manger Square and a visit to Daheisha refugee camp. He exhorted the Palestinians, "Do not be afraid."

Now many are. For safety, families have moved out of Beit Jala, some to neighboring towns, a few abroad. Some resent the Palestinian militias whose gunfire invites heavy Israeli retaliation.

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