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Bethlehem mayor to spend Christmas in the hospital

December 23, 1996

JERUSALEM (AP) _ The mayor of Bethlehem will spend Christmas in the hospital this year.

Elias Freij, 76, has been hospitalized since Saturday with a mild case of pneumonia, Hadassah hospital spokesman Yossi Shoval said.

``Physicians are doing their utmost to see that he will be released from the hospital for the New Year,″ Shoval said Monday.

But Shoval said it was unlikely Freij’s condition would improve quickly enough to be released in time for Bethlehem’s Christmas Eve celebrations, which draw thousands of pilgrims from around the world.

These are the first Christmas festivities Freij will miss in his 24 years as mayor of the West Bank city, said his secretary, Dina Nasar.

Freij was hospitalized earlier this month with a kidney malfunction.

Meanwhile, a tourism official said Monday that the number of tourists visiting Bethlehem has dropped by 11 percent in the year it has been under Palestinian control.

Palestinian officials blamed Israel for the decline, saying the general climate of uncertainty over the peace process and closures of the city by the Israeli army scared off visitors.

``Pilgrims don’t take risks. They don’t want adventures,″ said George Samur, tourism coordinator for Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority in Bethlehem.

Samur said 1,010,454 visitors came to Bethlehem in 1995, compared to 897,000 in 1996. Israel handed control of the city to the Palestinians just before Christmas 1995.

Unemployment has reached 40 percent in Bethlehem, and many of the 42 souvenir shops and 150 factories related to the tourist industry have been affected, Samur said.

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