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26 Dec, 2015

Dampened by Violence, Christmas Celebrations Held in Bethlehem

BETHLEHEM, December 24, 2014 (WAFA) – Overshadowed by the ongoing violence since early October 2015 and the death of over 135 Palestinians, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad Twal arrived Thursday at Bethlehem’s Manger Square, marking the start of Christmas Eve celebrations in Palestine.

Twal’s procession took off from the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem and made its way to Manger Square through a massive metal gate in Israel’s Separation wall at the northern entrance of the besieged city, where fierce clashes have erupted almost on a daily basis for the last three months.

Twal was welcomed by the Latin parish priests and representatives of Bethlehem at the Tomb of Rachel, also known as Bilal Bin Rabah Mosque, before making his way to Bethlehem’s main square, where he was greeted by Bethlehem Governor Jebrin al-Bakri, Mayor Vera Baboun and Director of Police ‘Alaa Shibli.

He was also received by a host of Palestinian officials, namely Palestinian Ambassador to Germany Khuloud Da‘ibis, Palestinian Ambassador to Spain Kifah Odeh and PLO Executive Committee Member Hanna ‘Amireh.

Thousands of Palestinians, tourists, and Christian pilgrims arrived in Bethlehem to take part in the celebrations and greet the Patriarch before his entry into the Basilica of the Nativity and St. Catherine’s Church.

President Mahmoud Abbas and Jordanian Tourism Minister Nayef al-Fayez are expected to arrive in Bethlehem later Thursday to attend the annual midnight mass.

Normally Bethlehem Christmas celebrations attract a huge number of tourists, but this year only a fraction of the tens of thousands of tourists flocked to the city.

Minister of Tourism Rula Maayah anticipated that 7,500 occupants are expected to stay in Bethlehem hotels on Christmas Eve and 10,000 tourists and pilgrims are expected to attend midnight Christmas celebrations.

She said despite the recent spiral of violence, celebrations of Christmas in Palestine send a message that Palestinians deserves to live like everyone else in other parts of the world.

In anticipation of Christmas Eve celebrations, 500 police officers have been deployed around the city in main streets and junctions to ensure security. Besides, 55 Palestinian Red Crescent paramedics and volunteers will also be on high alert in anticipation of emergencies.

Taking security arrangements into consideration, Father Ibrahim Faltas, General Administrator of the Custody of the Holy Land, encouraged Christians around the world to visit Bethlehem dismissing any security concerns.

He described Christmas of 2015 as ‘unique’ because it coincided with the birth anniversary of Prophet Mohammad for the first time since 400 years.

Being held in the shadow of the recent spiral of violence that has rocked Israel and the occupied Palestinian Territories, the mood was less festive than the previous years.

Mayor Vera Baboun said the Christmas tree in Manger Square would be unlit at 7pm for five minutes in the cities of Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Beit Sahour to signify Palestinians’ objection of Israel’s growing oppression.

The Church of the Nativity is administered by three churches, the Roman Catholic Church, the Greek Orthodox Church and the Armenian Church. The Orthodox and Oriental churches will celebrate the feast on December 25 according to the Julian calendar, equivalent to January 7.

This year, less numbers of Palestinian Christians, whose numbers have dwindled in recent years, flocked to Bethlehem as many have chosen to leave the occupied Palestinian Territories to escape a nearly 60-year-long Israeli occupation.

Living under military occupation, Palestinian Christians have been suffering as a result of Israel’s policies of land confiscation, settlements’ expansion, movement restrictions and the revocation of identity cards for Palestinians in Jerusalem.

Palestinian Christians in the Gaza Strip should apply for special permits in order to make their way to the city, but occasionally not all family members are granted permits.

According to Faltas of the Custody of the Holy Land, 500 Palestinian Christians from Gaza have obtained entry permits to attend Bethlehem Christmas celebrations and 500 others from the West Bank would be allowed to visit Gaza.

Christians from Gaza hope that their celebration of the feast will help them alleviate and forget their suffering in the wake of the eight-year-long Israeli blockade on the coastal enclave.