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Publisher\Editor Don Canaan

                      Dec. 21, 1995, V3, #232
All the News the Big Guys Missed

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A Christmas Controversy in Bethlehem

By Al Pessin (VOA-Jerusalem)

Some evangelical Christian groups have called for a boycott of Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem because the city will be under the Palestinian Autonomy Authority, which these groups accuse of persecuting Christians. But the Roman Catholic patriarch in Jerusalem, who is a Palestinian, has blasted the idea as inappropriate advice from foreigners.

Christmas decorations and Palestinian flags share space on Manger Square and in other parts of Bethlehem, in preparation for the arrival of Palestinian Autonomy to be followed within a few days by the celebration of Christmas.

The traditional Midnight Mass will be celebrated in the Church of the Nativity, built on the site where Christians believe Jesus was born. Outside, on the square, there will be a choir festival and various religious services and celebrations. Thousands of people are expected to attend. Local leaders say it will be the most joyous Christmas in years because of the end of Israeli occupation.

But not everyone is so joyous. Nine Christian organizations have called on their faithful not to go to Bethlehem this Christmas, to protest the transfer of the city to Palestinian rule. One of those groups is called Bridges for Peace. Its director is Clarence Wagner.

"There are millions of evangelical Christians and other Middle East Christians who are concerned about the fact that Bethlehem has been unilaterally turned over to the Palestinian Authority, which is under the aegis of the PLO, and therefore has placed Bethlehem under Muslim control. Historically, Islam has not respected Christian holy sites. And here, Manger Square, the birthplace of Jesus, one of the holiest shrines in Christianity, is sort of being quietly being turned over to a Muslim authority and no one is saying anything like, 'What will this mean for the future?'"

Wagner says Christians have been persecuted in Muslim countries in recent years, and he lists the PLO's treatment of Lebanese Christians as one example. He says he is worried the free access to holy sites and freedom of worship Christians have had under Israel will not be duplicated by the Palestinian Authority.

Palestinian officials have gone out of their way to try to ease such concerns in recent weeks. Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, a Muslim, is planning to be in Bethlehem for Christmas. Palestinian officials say the plan emphasizes his commitment to religious freedom.

But the Latin Patriarch of the Holy Land, Michel Sabbah, who is Palestinian, said he welcomes the transfer of authority in Bethlehem and Arafat's plan to attend Midnight Mass. He says religion and politics have always been linked in the Middle East, and this is an opportunity to make that linkage in a positive way.

Sabbah -- the senior Roman Catholic clergyman for Israel and the Palestinian territories -- sharply criticizes those who are calling for a boycott of Bethlehem this Christmas. "They are our brothers, every human being is our brother, but they are coming from abroad and they are bringing in the country feelings from abroad, and which do not correspond to the views and to the needs, spiritual and human, of the land. This land needs reconciliation. So, this is what we need, and not people coming from outside to tell us boycott this and boycott that.

The position of Christian Palestinians, such as Patriarch Sabbah, is not a simple one. Officially, Muslim leaders say their people respect their Christian neighbors, but Christians complain of discrimination and harassment.

For the groups calling for a boycott, this first Christmas under autonomy is an opportunity to point out the problems and protest. For others, such as Patriarch Sabbah, it is an occasion to emphasize the idea of unity and try to show it can work. Either way, the controversy demonstrates the patriarch's point that religion and politics are never far apart in the Middle East -- even on Christmas, even on Manger Square.

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