Christmas pilgrims in Bethlehem hope for peace |

Christmas pilgrims in Bethlehem hope for peace

Associated Press

BETHLEHEM, West Bank – Several thousand pilgrims celebrated Christmas Eve in the traditional birthplace of Jesus on Friday, welcoming the new thaw in Israeli-Palestinian relations and voicing hopes for peace in the Middle East.

Christian worshippers made their way to Manger Square, adjacent to the Church of the Nativity, on Friday. But under a steady rain, their numbers thinned throughout the evening.

Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, the senior Roman Catholic official in the Holy Land, celebrated Midnight Mass in nearby St. Catherine’s Church. Hundreds of people packed the church, some forced to sit on the floor.

With interim Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and other dignitaries looking on from the front row, Sabbah called on Israelis and Palestinians to put the violence of the past behind them.

“Palestine and Israel must conquer the evil of violence … and give birth to a new society of brothers and sisters in which no one controls the other, no one is occupied by the other, no one causes insecurity for the other, no one takes liberty from the other,” he said.

Many of the visitors to Manger Square were local Palestinians, and in the cold, bitter rain, shopkeepers lamented that business remained in the doldrums. The crowds were larger than in recent years, but far below Bethlehem’s heyday in the 1990s, when tens of thousands packed the city every Christmas season. Tourism is vital to Bethlehem’s economy.

“It’s better than any (recent) year, but it’s also bad,” said Rony Tabash, a 23-year-old shopkeeper. He said he had rung up a mere $40 in sales, compared to thousands of dollars of sales during the boom years.

Even so, Tabash, who spent the evening in his empty souvenir shop with relatives and friends, said he is hopeful things will get better. “Without hope, you cannot live,” he said.

The celebrations in Bethlehem came as Christians around the world marked the holiday. At the Vatican, Pope John Paul II lit a candle for peace in his window before celebrating Midnight Mass.

All through the day, pilgrims descended on St. Peter’s Square, admiring the 100-year-old Christmas tree and a new fleet of Italian police mini cars deployed in the latest security measure for the already heavily protected piazza.

The pope, who was a staunch opponent of the U.S.-led war in Iraq, said in a recent peace message that “violence is an unacceptable evil that never solves problems.”

In Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld paid a surprise Christmas Eve visit to some of the most dangerous areas of the country and told U.S. troops he believes they will defeat the insurgents.

“When it looks bleak, when one worries about how it’s going to come out, when one reads and hears the naysayers and the doubters who say it can’t be done, and that we’re in a quagmire here,” one should recall that there have been such doubters “throughout every conflict in the history of the world,” he said.

The celebratory atmosphere in Bethlehem was a welcome contrast to recent years. During the fighting, Bethlehem has been ringed by Israeli checkpoints and a huge separation barrier has been erected.

However, this Christmas Eve, troops handed out candy as they allowed pilgrims, including Palestinians from throughout the West Bank, to pass easily through the roadblocks.