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UNDER THE SHADOW OF TERRORISTS AND TANKS

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UNDER THE SHADOW OF TERRORISTS AND TANKS



 The journey to Bethlehem, the city of David where Jesus was born, was a harrowing excursion, even on Christmas Eve.

This is the third Christmas since the latest intifada began in September 2000. In the past, thousands of pilgrims, mostly Catholic and Orthodox Christians, journeyed to the Church of the Nativity in the middle of Bethlehem, for midnight mass on Christmas Eve.

The road was sometimes backed up three miles from the church to the checkpoint, according to some people who regularly made the trek. This year, however, taxi drivers squabbled over the few passengers. Young men had plenty of room to hawk postcards and souvenirs in front of the church. Shops were closed. And spirits were down.

"We don't feel like this is Christmas," said George Taima, 20, from Beit Jalla.

He and his friend, George Asfour, 21, from Bethlehem, were at the Church of the Nativity during Christmas Eve mass. Asfour said that with Israeli tanks and soldiers in the city up until that day, Manger Square was never decorated, and any room for the holiday spirit was squelched.

"Where's the feeling?" he asked. "There's no hope, no peace."

Despite the feeling of hopelessness pervading the congregants, more people than were expected, even foreigners from Spain, Italy and Asia, crowded into the church.

Dickran Torossian, a tour guide from Jerusalem, led a group from Indonesia to Bethlehem that night.

"It's sad that you don't see the decorations, you don't feel the Christmas spirit," he said.

Not all blamed Israeli tanks for the lack of Christmas spirit. One young Christian Arab from Bethlehem remonstrated against the threats her community had been subjected to from the main terrorist factions, including Yasser Arafat's Fatah.

"Everybody is afraid, no one dares to say anything?We don't know who ordered the city not to decorate a Christmas tree and not to light lights and play music", she told one reporter, "but [Palestinian officials] have been telling us every evening on TV that we should not celebrate except go to church because Palestinians are suffering everywhere."

Many people who live outside of Bethlehem and had traditionally gone there on Christmas Eve refused to go this year fearing that if a curfew was suddenly called they would be stuck there. A curfew that had been in effect for a month was lifted on Christmas Eve.

Those who did go went for tradition's sake. The entryway to the church was impassable with people waiting to get in. The mass, given in Arabic, was crowded to the back of the long sanctuary. The entrance to the grotto, the exact place within the massive compound where Jesus is believed to have been born, was lined with people waiting to walk through.

The church was filled more with socializing than praying it seemed. Many people milled outside the sanctuary meeting friends and during the mass the din of chatter was louder than the priest.

"It's nice to come here one time to say that I did it, but other than that it's nothing special," said Trey Hulsey, from Boston. Hulsey, a Christian, is a student at Hebrew University.

Politicians beg to differ. Using the celebrations to gain political leverage, Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat has gone to Bethlehem for Christmas celebrations for five years even though he is a Muslim. He was barred by Israel last year and again this year from entering Bethlehem.

Raanan Gissin, spokesman for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said Arafat's participation in the Christian festivities is hypocritical.

"Israel is a pluralistic society and is open to the various Christian communities among us, unlike the PA which has used and abused the Christian community in Beit Jalla, Beit Sahour and Bethlehem," he told ICEJ News.

Many Christian families have emigrated from the Bethlehem area to other countries in recent years as the PA tightened its grip there. A 10 percent tax was levied on the Christians to help finance the intifada, Gissin said.

"That never happened when we were in charged," he said. "You can point the blame to Mr. Arafat."

Gissin said that Israel planned to ensure, "to the best of our ability, that the Christmas celebrations and the mass would go on without interruptions."

"For the past two years Christmas has been celebrated in the shadow of terrorist activity and under heavy guard," he said, noting also that the Church of the Nativity was used "in a cynical way" in May when terrorists holed up there for 39 days in a standoff with Israeli forces.

For its part, Israel reduced troop visibility in the area and the government provided transportation for Arab Christians from Judea, Samaria and Gaza during the holidays.

Indeed, Israel did accommodate pilgrims. People going through the checkpoint were barely hassled except for a cursory passport check on the way out.

The taxis, on the other hand, took advantage of the situation where the only tourists for perhaps the year tried to get to the church. The taxi ride from the checkpoint to the church was 20 shekels (after some bargaining), but on the way out, cabs were running people to the border for 50 shekels. Using the late hour ? well after midnight ? and the pouring rain as excuses, the drivers smiled and shrugged their shoulders as hopeless travelers took the only transportation to the border, about 3 miles from the church.

His first Christmas overseas, Hulsey spoke of fewer distractions. He said grace over Christmas dinner, sang Christmas carols and prayed this year more conscious of the season's importance.

"I've learned from being here, where (Christmas) is not celebrated at all, to appreciate the spiritual significance of the day," he said. "It is easier to focus on the spiritual part ? you have to make yourself do it."