Besieged Bethlehem has plenty of room at inn

 

The little town of Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, will mark his 2,000th birthday on Christmas Eve simply with a midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity.

Only a few thousand local Christians will be attending, along with a a scattering of dignitaries from the Muslim community, now the majority. In peaceful years, some 13,000 Palestinian Christians normally take part in the service but due to the troubles, the faithful from other West Bank towns cannot travel to Bethlehem.

The Palestinian President, Mr Yasser Arafat, who generally presides, is unlikely to do so this year. He has not visited the West Bank since early October because of the risk of assassination. Decorative lights still up since last year have been switched on and a tall fir tree in Manger Square has been decorated. But the traditional gathering for carol-singing at Shepherds' Field has been cancelled.

Refugee families whose homes were destroyed during Israeli bombardments of the adjacent village of Beit Jala are camping in tents in the field.

While the whole town could be expected to join in a grand celebration because the Muslim holiday at the end of the fasting month of Ramadan coincides with Christmas this year, there will be little feasting. Bethlehem is besieged by the Israeli army, supplies of food and fuel are rationed.

There are few pilgrims and many unoccupied rooms at many inns. Restaurants are empty. In the square, most shops selling rosaries, crosses, figures of the holy family carved from olive wood and packets of incense have closed. There is no work, little money, no joy. In mid-December the town's mayor, Mr Hanna Nasser, persuaded the municipal council to reverse a decision to cancel all public Christmas observances. "Hanging over Bethlehem is an atmosphere of sorrow but we are going to celebrate Christmas," he stated, inviting pilgrims to come from the four corners of the world to pray for peace in the Holy Land.

But concerts by guest choirs from many countries and the Christmas bazaar have been dropped. Prospects for the coming year are bleak.

Many families are in mourning because dozens of local youths and men have been killed.