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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
"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
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
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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