Embittered Bethlehem
Prepares For Bleak Christmas


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 ago.
"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 peace."
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 our faith."
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," adds Mira.
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, a neighbour.
But Jamal Salman, an administrator at Bethlehem's municipality, rebuffs the accusation: "We're all in the same boat, Christians and Muslims."
"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 wife.
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.
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