Palestinians Call for Christians to Worship in Bethlehem
A Palestinian official called on pilgrims Monday to defy Israel and celebrate Christmas in the traditional birthplace of Jesus Christ, even though deadly violence has forced the cancellation of most festivities.
"People should take a stand, they should come to Bethlehem and dare Israel to shoot at civilians," said Nabil Qassis, in charge of the planned Bethlehem 2000 festivities.
"Christmas has always been in Bethlehem and it will continue to be," he told a press conference. "We want people to come and if they come to Bethlehem where Palestinians are they will be safe,"
Palestinian-ruled Bethlehem and surrounding villages have been among the hotspots of 12 weeks of fighting between Israelis and Palestinians in which more than 340 people, mainly Palestinians, have been killed.
As part of security measures Israel has sealed off the West Bank and Gaza Strip, making it difficult for pilgrims to reach the town.
"The religious festivities will take place but there will be no popular festivals, there will be no celebrations," Qassis said. "Families do not celebrate while there is a death in the family and there are already more than 300 martyrs".
The traditional midnight mass on Christmas Day, December 25, will be broadcast live as usual, he added.
Tourism, the mainstay of Bethlehem's existence, has been killed by the unrest, as thousands of people have cancelled trips to the region.
Qassim said that almost the whole program for the Bethlehem 2000 celebrations had been cancelled, saying, "the season has been hit very hard."
November saw only 3,000 tourists visit Bethlehem, "which is less than one day in a bad year," he added.
"We were expecting 1.5 million tourists this year, we had 700,000 till July."
Qassim still expressed optimism, however, saying, "The Palestinian Authority invested 200 million dollars in the tourism sector in the last five years and this reflects that we are confident in the future." -- BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AFP)
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)