Christmas joy in short supply for Bethlehem


Just days before Christmas, Santa Claus sped around Bethlehem in a BMW sports car, waving a bell out of the window and giving gifts to children before racing off again to beat an Israeli army curfew.

"The festivities have to go on as usual," said Issa David, the Palestinian man who donned the outfit for visits sponsored by a television station for children housebound under the curfew.

Two years into the Palestinian uprising, Christians in Bethlehem are living under the impact of violence. Instead of decorating and shopping, some Christians mourn family members killed in the violence, wait for sons or husbands on the run from soldiers, or dodge the army to attend church.

Christians are a minority among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Officials estimate they make up no more than five percent of the mostly Muslim population of the Palestinian-ruled areas.

Bethlehem and its villages have the largest concentration of Christians. The focal point is Bethlehem's Nativity Church complex, where Palestinian President Mr Yasser Arafat has been banned by Israel from attending Christmas mass.

"There will not be any Christmas joy this year," said Suzanne Taljia, whose son was shot and killed in front of the Nativity Church last year.

Um Yacoub, a Palestinian Christian mother, sat by a Christmas tree. Her children asked whether their father, on the run from Israeli soldiers,would return for the holiday.

"I put up a tree as a symbol of Christmas but I don't want the children to know about this whole situation," she said. - (Reuters)