12/14/2004, 00.00
PALESTINE
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Somber Christmas in Bethlehem after Arafat's death

Bethlehem (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Arafat's death and the difficult situation Bethlehem Christians face—caught between Israeli repression and Islamist pressure—mean that Christmas celebrations in Christ's birthplace will be toned down, with fewer lights and decorations, this according to Hanna Nasser, Bethlehem's Christian Mayor, who spoke during a press conference.

Unlike previous years, the Judean city will celebrate Christmas without much fanfare. Scouts and majorettes won't parade. Out of respect for the late Yasser Arafat, Christmas lights will sparkle only in Manger Square; the rest of the city will not be decorated

Local Church sources told AsiaNews that, unlike pre-Intifada days when the holiday season was chaotic and had a circus-like ambiance, this year's more sober atmosphere will enable Bethlemites to focus on the religious aspects of Christmas.

In preparation of Christmas, the solemn Novena will start tomorrow. Mass will start every day at 4:30 pm and will include a period to reflect.

In his press conference, in reference to the conditions under which Palestinians live Mayor Nasser said that "living under occupation is certainly the most painful experience a man can face".

Local sources told AsiaNews that in the last few days there have been signs that movement between Bethlehem and Jerusalem has become easier. There are fewer check points, lines are smaller and Palestinians can more easily get passes to enter Israel to work.

Still, things are hard. Mr Nasser appealed to Christians all over the world to come. "Imagine the city of Bethlehem with no Christians," he said.

Some 2,400 Christians out of a total of some 40,000 living in Bethlehem and surrounding areas have left since the start of the second intifada in 2000.

"If we don't have a quick breakthrough in the peace process more are going to leave," he insisted. (LF)

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