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Somber celebrations mark Orthodox Christmas in Bethlehem

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  • leonard_grossman
    WIRE: 01/06/2002 6:22 pm ET Somber celebrations mark Orthodox Christmas in Bethlehem The Associated Press
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 6, 2002
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      WIRE: 01/06/2002 6:22 pm ET

      Somber celebrations mark Orthodox Christmas in Bethlehem
      The Associated Press

      http://www.abcnews.go.com/wire/World/ap20020106_1290.html

      BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) Orthodox Christians held low-key services Sunday to celebrate Christmas without Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who was barred by the Israelis from attending the ceremonies.

      In Bethlehem, only a few hundred Christian celebrants showed up for a procession of Greek, Syrian, Coptic and Ethiopian patriarchs. The turnout was a fraction of past years.

      Making its way through the hilly streets of Bethlehem before arriving in Manger Square, the procession entered the Church of the Nativity, built over a grotto where tradition says Jesus was born.

      "There is no joy in Christmas this year. My friends and relatives from other Palestinian towns can't share it with us," said Issam Juha, 25, who was watching the proceedings with his family.

      Later, Greek Orthodox Patriarch Eireneos I attended a thinly attended Midnight Mass at the church. "God of peace, give our land peace," congregants prayed.

      Eireneos sat next to an empty chair marked "His Excellency President Yasser Arafat" and draped with a black-and-white checkered keffiyeh headdress, Arafat's trademark headgear.

      Bethlehem resident George Bandak, 35, said he was praying for peace.

      "The absence of our leader will not break our spirit," he said. "Tonight we are praying for freedom for Palestinians and peace for Palestine."

      Arafat, a regular at the services since the Palestinians gained control of Bethlehem in 1995, was unable to attend because of a travel ban imposed by Israel.

      Israel says it will keep Arafat confined to his West Bank headquarters in Ramallah until he arrests those responsible for the October assassination of an Israeli Cabinet minister.

      Arafat was also barred from attending Christmas Eve celebrations on Dec. 24, despite international criticism of the Israeli ban.

      Most Christmases, thousands of pilgrims and tourists crowd Bethlehem's streets. Shops, and homes are lighted up, bustling restaurants stay open late and the city shimmers with Christmas decorations and religious icons.

      This Christmas, there were few decorations, save the Palestinian flags. Hotels and restaurants stood empty. Souvenir shops that depend heavily on the holiday season were shuttered.

      The blockade of Palestinian towns, which has been in place throughout the 15 months of Mideast fighting, has devastated the Palestinian economy. Bethlehem, which depends heavily on tourism, has been extremely hard hit.

      While the Greek Orthodox Church celebrated Christmas on Sunday, Orthodox Christians in Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia were to celebrate on Monday, according to the old Julian calendar.

      Copyright 2001 The Associated Press
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