Tags: Thousands | Pilgrims | Visit | Bethlehem

Thousands of Pilgrims Visit Bethlehem

Saturday, 25 December 2004 12:00 AM

With interim Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and other dignitaries looking on from the front row, Sabbah called on Israelis and Palestinians to put the violence of the past behind them.

``Our situation continues to be a situation of conflict, violence, insecurity, fear, military occupation, the wall of separation, of imprisoned cities and demolitions,'' he said.

``Palestine and Israel must conquer the evil of violence ... and give birth to a new society of brothers and sisters in which no one controls the other, no one is occupied by the other, no one causes insecurity for the other, no one takes liberty from the other,'' he said.

The Israeli army said 5,000 people descended on Bethlehem for Christmas. While the crowds were larger than in recent years, the numbers were far smaller than during the boom period of the 1990s, when tens of thousands of people would flood into the West Bank town for Christmas.

But a sense of hope was felt by many. Since Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's death on Nov. 11, there has been a marked warming of ties between Israel and the new Palestinian leadership.

In a sign of the growing cooperation, Abbas was allowed to join the celebration, where he was greeted by cheering crowds. In previous years, Israel prevented Arafat from attending the celebration, accusing him of advocating violence.

``It's a troubled time in the Middle East, but we live in hope,'' said Joyce Maykut, 55, a Canadian lawyer who came from her home in the United Arab Emirates for the holiday. She said the hopeful atmosphere in the region attracted her to Bethlehem, despite safety concerns.

The celebratory atmosphere was a welcome contrast to recent years. During the fighting, Bethlehem has been ringed by Israeli checkpoints and a massive separation barrier has been erected.

However, on Christmas Eve, troops allowed pilgrims, including Palestinians from throughout the West Bank, to pass easily through the roadblocks. The soldiers also handed out candy at checkpoints.

Abbas arrived in a large convoy Friday evening, the first time a Palestinian leader has been permitted to join the celebrations in four years.

The celebration gave an important boost to Abbas, who is the front-runner in Palestinian presidential elections next month. Abbas also stopped into a mosque to pray.

``We ask God and wish that all the religions in this country will live in peace and security,'' Abbas said. ``I hope next year will be much better than the previous ones.''

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon also sent Christmas greetings.

Sabbah kicked off the celebrations by leading a midday procession of about 1,000 Christians through Bethlehem. A Palestinian scout group band accompanied them, playing bagpipes and clashing cymbals.

By Friday night, much of Manger Square - the stone-paved courtyard outside the Church of the Nativity, which Christians believe is built on the grotto where Jesus was born - had cleared out.

In the bitter rain, just a few dozen people, mostly Palestinian teenagers, wandered the streets, while tourists headed indoors.

``I'm just delighted to be here,'' said Chris Shepherd, 41, of Columbus, Ohio. ``It's absolutely incredible. I've just been overwhelmed by the friendliness of people.''

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With interim Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and other dignitaries looking on from the front row, Sabbah called on Israelis and Palestinians to put the violence of the past behind them. ``Our situation continues to be a situation of conflict, violence, insecurity, fear,...
Thousands,Pilgrims,Visit,Bethlehem
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2004-00-25
Saturday, 25 December 2004 12:00 AM
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