In Bethlehem Pilgrims Find Peace

BETHLEHEM — On the surface, it doesn't feel very much like the Christmas season in the place of Christ's birth.

That's because Palestinians in this West Bank town and elsewhere are still marking Islam's traditional 40-day mourning period for Yasser Arafat, even if they themselves are not Muslims.

Still, Bethlehem officials promise the decorations will be up in time for Christmas and that pilgrims will find the mood both festive and spiritual.

Despite the Palestinian leader's death last month — or perhaps because of it — Holy Land Christians seem more hopeful than they have been in four years, since the start of the Palestinian intifada(uprising), in September 2000. “We hope things will be better this Christmas,” said Michel Nasser, the Catholic director of the Bethlehem Peace Center, looking out toward Manger Square on a cold, blustery day.

Nasser said both Christians and Muslims “are more optimistic because right after Christmas we will have elections.” Palestinian elections to choose a new president are scheduled for early January.

Until the intifada, local Christians reaped the benefits of the huge upswing in pilgrimages that came in the wake of Pope John Paul II's visit during Jubilee Year 2000. Christian-owned souvenir shops, hotels and restaurants were packed, and the small community began to hope for a better future.

But the intifada and the ensuing violence virtually put an end to tourism in the Palestinian-ruled West Bank, which is home to such biblical sites as Bethlehem, Hebron and Jericho, and shattered the dreams of local Christians. In recent years, several hundred — perhaps even more — have emigrated to other countries as jobs dried up and violence intensified.

Today, Christians comprise only 1.8% of the Israeli and Palestinian populations, according to officials on both sides.

Just when the situation seemed to be deteriorating further, signs of improvement began to emerge. Last month, leaders from various churches, including the Vatican's representative to Israel, Msgr. Pietro Sambi, met with Israeli officials and jointly announced plans to encourage millions of Christians worldwide to visit the region.

The Pope has long advocated a visit to the Holy Land, not only to experience spiritual growth but to assist suffering Christians there.

Israeli officials have said all tourists who wish to enter the West Bank will be able to do so, provided there is no violence at the time that could make such a visit hazardous. It is unlikely that Israel will loosen its travel restrictions on Palestinians wishing to enter Jerusalem.

Although the Israeli army has sometimes clamped curfews on Bethlehem residents, things have been quiet and safe in recent months. Jerusalem and other parts of Israel have also been unusually peaceful, thanks to an almost complete halt of terror attacks during the past year.

The Israeli government attributes the reduction in attacks to the huge barrier it has erected between most of the Jewish state and the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinians, in contrast, say the barrier — a wall in some places, a fence in others — has severely restricted their access to schools, workplaces and even churches.

Pilgrims entering Bethlehem from Jerusalem will get a first-hand look at the enormous concrete wall Israel is building around the town. They will also have the opportunity to speak with Holy Land Christians, who attend the same church services as pilgrims.

Due to the mourning period for Arafat, Bethlehem's annual Christmas Market will take place Dec. 22 rather than Dec. 5, which will provide tourists an unusual opportunity to purchase Christmas gifts from around the world.

“Different countries sell their products at a very low price, and the money will go to help the local poor,” Nasser said. The prices are kept low to enable even the most impoverished local families to provide gifts to their children, he said.

The desire for religious tourists is so strong that the Israeli and Palestinian Authority tourism ministers put aside their differences long enough to sit together for the first time in four years. They jointly called on pilgrims to come for Christmas.

“We are telling everyone that they can come freely to the Holy Land,” Palestinian Tourism Minister Mitri Abu Aitah said. Israeli Minister of Tourism Gideon Ezra said, “We are here to open a new era in relations between the two sides, and nothing is better than tourism to do good for both sides.”

In Bethlehem, residents are waiting to see whether these gestures are simply words or if they will indeed lead to better things.

Like most Palestinians, Nasser believes “peace is in the hands of the Israelis” and that they alone have the power to improve the situation.

“While it's true that more pilgrims are coming,” Nasser said, “the Israelis don't always allow in every pilgrim who wishes to pass through the checkpoint” between Jerusalem and the West Bank. It's also a hardship when we (West Bank) Christians are prohibited from going to Jerusalem to pray during Christmas and other times.”

Michelle Chabin writes from Jerusalem.