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Abiding in fields, Bethlehem shepherds wonder at Christmas fuss

December 24, 1997

SHEPHERD’S FIELD, West Bank (AP) _ Where biblical shepherds watched their flocks by night, modern-day herders still eke out a meager living in the stony hills just outside Bethlehem.

``My father was a shepherd, and my grandfather, too,″ said 25-year-old Khalil Mousa, casting an eye over his family’s herd of three dozen grazing sheep. ``But I want to do something more. I’d like to go to school, learn some other trade.″

Like other herders who drive their flocks to sparse pastures in the area known as Shepherd’s Field _ where tradition says angels told shepherds of the birth of the Christ child _ Mousa knows that shepherds played a part in the Christmas story, but he’s hazy on details.

``I’m not sure exactly what they had to do with it, them or their sheep,″ said Mousa, a Palestinian Muslim from the nearby Arab village of Beit Sahour.

In the summertime, Mousa and his wife, Hadijeh, often sleep in the open air with their flock, keeping watch against prowling dogs and jackals. In winter, they tether the sheep near their tent and listen _ even in their sleep, they say _ for any sound of trouble.

Sales of wool, milk, cheese and lambs are the sole means of support for the Mousa clan, consisting of the young couple and their 10-month-old daughter, along with Mousa’s father and his two wives.

``Sometimes we just barely get by,″ said Hadijeh Mousa, who wore the traditional black headscarf of an observant Muslim woman, along with jeans, sneakers and a sweater with an embroidered Minnie Mouse. A gold tooth gleamed when she smiled, and her sun-weathered face made her look older than her 22 years.

The bleating of the flock mingled with the clanging of bells around the necks of some sheep, and the wind whistled through gaps in the barren hills. A few white winter flowers bloomed between stones on the side of the mountain, which the herders call Im al-Asafir, or Mother of Birds.

Hadijeh said she gets attached to the sheep, sometimes giving them nicknames. She knows which are the silliest ones, likely to wander from the fold or get into some kind of trouble.

Her husband takes a more no-nonsense approach. ``I just take care of them as best I can,″ said Mousa, clad in blue jeans, with a checkered keffiyeh scarf wound around his neck.

On Christmas Eve, the shepherds of biblical times are remembered in an Anglican carol service held in Shepherd’s Field. Always included is a reading from the second chapter of the gospel of Luke, telling the Christmas story _ ``And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night...″

In Jerusalem, the Scots Memorial Church holds a Christmas Eve observance called the Watch-Night service, after the shepherds who tended their flocks. ``Maybe we Scots feel an affinity with those pastoral herders,″ said its pastor, the Rev. Ian Peyton.

The quiet, candlelit service at Shepherd’s Field is popular with Christian pilgrims who want an alternative to the sometimes raucous observances in Bethlehem’s Manger Square, which draw thousands of tourists and locals annually.

Bethlehem’s midnight Mass, held in a church built on the spot where tradition says Jesus was born, is for ticketholders only, with most celebrants watching on a big TV screen set up in the square outside.

Roman Catholic biblical scholar Father Jerome Murphy-O’Connor says Manger Square on Christmas Eve is ``a circus″ _ worth seeing once perhaps, but once only.

``For a more spiritual experience, I’d recommend to anyone that instead, they go out and sing carols in the moonlight at Shepherd’s Field,″ he said.

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