12/27/2008, 00.00
PALESTINE - ISRAEL
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Tens of thousands of pilgrims in Bethlehem for Christmas

The celebration unfolded peacefully, under the control of the Palestinian police. The number of tourists is up in the city. But tension remains high in the surrounding area.

Bethlehem (AsiaNews/Agencies) - Tens of thousands of pilgrims have celebrated Christmas in Bethlehem, protected by about 900 policemen belonging to the force of Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. On the morning of the 25th, under a light rain, a procession of the faithful wound through the square in front of the Church of the Nativity, to the cave where Jesus was born. A few hours earlier, the Church of St. Catherine was full for midnight Mass, at which President Abbas also participated.

There is a serious crisis between Israel and the Palestinians in the area, but the violence has diminished in the West Bank, favoring the return of tourists. For the Christmas season, Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak approved the deployment of Palestinian police to protect Bethlehem, as a gesture of "good will" for Abbas.

The Palestinian tourism minister, Khouloud Daibes-Abu Dayyeh, notes that the hotels were crowded for the first time in years. Tourism brings the Palestinian economy about 480 million dollars a year, and the authorities of Bethlehem say that in 2008, there was a boom of about a million tourists in the city, surrounded on three sides by the cement wall and electrified barriers set up by Israel to protect itself from suicide attacks.

The Christmas atmosphere in Bethlehem is in strong contrast to that in the Gaza Strip, just a few dozen kilometers away. About 900 pilgrims asked for permission to go from Gaza to Bethlehem, but only 300 obtained it. The tiny Christian community in Gaza (400 people out of 1.4 million) stayed away from midnight Mass, in protest against the Israeli blockade of the area.

In nearby Nazareth, in front of the Basilica of the Annunciation, a large banner was displayed citing the Qur'an in English and Arabic: "He is Allah, the one and only. Allah the eternal, absolute." The Christians observe that the banner has been there for a long time, and the fundamentalist Islamic Movement occasionally changes the text with different verses from the Qur'an. Discouraged, they say that the banner has been hung "on the property of the municipality, which shouldn't permit this." But "we have to forget about it. That is the way it is here. It is not provocative or calling people to violence."

The mayor of Nazareth, Ramiz Jaraisy, acknowledges that the banner "is not in the right place," but since it doesn't incite to violence, the municipality has chosen to look the other way.

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