- BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AFP)
- Saint Catherine's church is filled with worshippers on a wet Sunday morning,
but exiting the edifice they confessed this Christmas will the "bleakest"
of their lives.
- "This will be the bleakest Christmas ever because
we've been robbed of our freedom," says Johnny Babun, in his 40s,
whose garage and car wash business was razed by the Israeli army two years
- "We will find solace at the midnight mass, beyond
that there won't be any Christmas celebrations," he says, adding that
"ironically we'll commemorate the birth of Christ, the man who embodies
- Father Gianni, from the church adjoining the Basilica
of Nativity, which is revered as Jesus Christ's birthplace, is confident
Christmas celebrations will proceed uninterrupted.
- "I think everything will go smoothly. I hope that
our brothers from outside Bethlehem will be able to attend the procession
and mass," he says.
- "But we won't rejoice as we used too. The violence
is such that it would be difficult. We shall find peace and comfort in
- Raghida Sarsur says she only intends to pray this year:
"I can't imagine celebrating anything. For one, we don't have money
and what's more, we're psychologically battered after two years of death
and wanton destruction."
- Osama al-Zughbi and his wife Mira say even their wedding
last June was marred by violence.
- "The army rolled in Bethlehem just as we were getting
married," recalls Osama.
- "We have no life, no work how can we feel happy
inside?" he wonders, adding that he hopes to find "inner peace
during the Christmas prayers."
- "We'll have dinner, just the two us. We don't even
have a tree. Look, there are no decorations anywhere in Bethlehem, the
municipality is broke and no one is in the mood for celebrating,"
- Nativity Church warden Father Ibrahim Faltas concurs:
"This will be saddest Christmas ever celebrated in Bethlehem. We shall
pray for peace but we won't celebrate beyond the traditional Christmas
procession and mass."
- He too says he does not anticipate any problem with the
army, although the town has been under full Israeli control since late
November, and on and off since last April.
- "I don't think there will be any problem. The army
will not show up on Manger Square. Israeli troops will be around, but not
visible," he says.
- Israeli officials told AFP last week the army may temporarily
withdraw from downtown Bethlehem on Christmas Day.
- And military sources said Sunday the army planned to
lift the curfew over the next few days unless a security threat arose.
- Some among Bethlehem's overwhelmingly Muslim population
are annoyed by the prospect of an unhindered Christmas.
- "They did not withdraw or lift the curfew when it
was our feast," says Elham Laham, referring to the Eid al-Fitr, celebrated
earlier this month, which marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan.
- "Israel is trying to create tensions between Muslims
and Christians. They clearly favor them over us," adds Adballah Ibrahim,
- But Jamal Salman, an administrator at Bethlehem's municipality,
rebuffs the accusation: "We're all in the same boat, Christians and
- "Israel will lift the curfew and make its forces
invisible on Christmas day, but it's not for us Christians, it's because
the world's cameras will be focused on Bethlehem and Israel wants to project
a good image of itself."
- Meanwhile, at Holy Land Oriental Souvenirs shop, Yussef
is giving vent to his frustration after two years losing money: "We've
lost 99 percent of our business. We only open to clean the shop."
- "We've scraped just enough money together to buy
our children gifts but they won't be all that fancy," says Yussef's
- Bashir Handal's gift shop is empty most of the day.
- "People don't put up a Christmas tree at home, so
they don't buy decorations. As for the gifts, they limit their expenses
to the cheapest toys, " he says, pointing to shelves stacked with
Chinese-made plastic toy tanks and assault rifles.
- "This year's favorite," he says.