In Bethlehem, Christmas is muted by war

Mood: The tanks have pulled back, but months of fighting leave little reason or resources for celebration.

December 25, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BETHLEHEM, West Bank - Yesterday was Christmas Eve, but Shamiran Lusy's house near Manger Square looked like it did on any other day of the year. There was no Christmas tree, the ornaments were packed away in the closet, and there wasn't a shred of wrapping paper to be found.

Israeli soldiers who for the past four weeks had patrolled her street and occupied her city pulled back to allow Christmas celebrations in the place where it is believed Jesus was born, but the ease of patrols didn't put anyone in a festive mood.

"People don't feel that it is appropriate to have fun because of the situation," said Lusy, whose family all but canceled the holiday, save for a few sparse gifts for the youngest children and midnight Mass.

"Some put up a tree, but only because of pressure from the kids," Lusy said. "There is no joy. All we are doing is fulfilling our religious obligations. There is no place here where children can have happiness. It is a sad holiday."

Lusy works as a cook at Bethlehem University and darts to work every day through back alleys to skirt Israeli army patrols - the only way she can afford to feed her five children. Her husband is an unemployed social worker.

The family is dipping into their savings, and Christmas presents are a luxury they cannot afford. Ramsi, 7, and his brother, Joseph, 5, each got a sweater that cost $10 apiece. The three older children, and the adults, got nothing.

Yesterday, Ramsi bounded through the house showing off his tan-and-brown checkered gift. "I am happy because I got something nice," he said, squirming to break free from his mother's arms, finally conceding that his small joy is not widely shared.

"People are not happy," he said.

The Israeli army has stormed Bethlehem repeatedly over the past year, most recently on Nov. 21 hours after a Palestinian suicide bomber from a neighboring village blew up a bus and killed himself and 11 passengers in Jerusalem.

Since then, residents have been living most days under curfew; Monday was the first day in a week that the siege had been lifted to allow people to prepare for what usually is a fun-filled week.

Soldiers pull back

Yesterday, under pressure from the international community and the Vatican, soldiers pulled back to the city's outskirts to provide what it called "minimum visibility, maximum security" and to avoid television pictures of pilgrims and priests dodging army tanks to get to church.

The army eased restrictive rules at the checkpoint leading into Bethlehem, allowing Arab Christians from Jerusalem and the West Bank, tourists, diplomats and foreign citizens to attend church services.

It was the first time since Palestinians were given self-rule over Bethlehem in 1995 that Christmas was celebrated under occupation and the second consecutive year that Israeli officials have barred Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat from attending midnight Mass.

At precisely 1 p.m. yesterday, the traditional procession of priests and dignitaries wound their way to Bethlehem from southern Jerusalem, led by the Latin Patriarch, Michel Sabbah, the Vatican's representative to Jerusalem.

A line of cars snaked through the Israeli army checkpoint led by police cars, military jeeps and officers on horseback flying the blue-and-white flag of the Jewish state adorned with the Star of David.

Once across the line, police gave way to Palestinian boy scouts, who led the procession to the Church of the Nativity under Palestinian flag but without the traditional revelry of drums and bagpipes.

The parade maneuvered slowly through the maze of narrow streets as thousands pressed for a close look. At Manger Square, Sabbah walked to the church through a crowd that while fairly large, barely compared with the horde of visitors that used to fill the square on Christmas Eve for a midnight Mass broadcast live around the world.

There was no tree, no carolers and no lights. Only a few restaurants and tourist shops were open, and hawkers had a hard time selling steamed corn on the cob on a cold, rainy evening. A smattering of people wore red Santa hats and clutched balloons. At dusk, one neon sign wishing a "Merry Christmas" - a holdover from previous years - was lighted.

In his annual Christmas message, Sabbah said Christmas is supposed to be a "day of justice, peace and love. Yet our land is full of hatred and bloodshed." He appealed for the world "to wake up and to come and help both peoples of this land to make peace, based on justice, equality and dignity. To all we say: Do not forget this land and do not abandon us to our fate."

A changed square

Salah Ta'amari, a Palestinian legislator, watched the priests disappear into the church through the tiny Door of Humility and slowly shook his head. He grew up in Bethlehem and remembers Manger Square as the playground of his youth.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.