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Americans, Europeans Celebrate Christmas in Shepherds Field

December 25, 1985

SHEPHERDS FIELD, Occupied West Bank (AP) _ American and European pilgrims - including sailors from the U.S. 6th Fleet - gathered to sing carols and pray on Christmas Eve in this open, rocky field where tradition says the shepherds first learned of the birth of Jesus.

″Today, as it was then, there is a hope for peace. That is what this night is all about,″ said the Rev. John L. Peterson, a Baptist minister who led prayers in Arabic, English and Swedish.

″You know in your heart it’s Christmastime, so your thoughts go to home and you hope everything is going fine,″ said Petty Officer 2nd Class Kevin Pusch, 26, of Vernon, Conn., from the frigate USS Paul.

On Christmas Eve, both Protestant and Roman Catholic services are conducted in Shepherds Field on the outskirts of Bethlehem, the field where the Gospel of Luke says shepherds guarding their flocks at night received the first news of Jesus’ birth nearly 2,000 years ago.

About 100 pilgrims attended outdoor services in the crisp night air, guarded by a dozen Israeli soldiers armed with automatic weapons.

Tom Jacks of London, England, looked at the Israeli guards and said: ″It looks like the shepherds are well armed against the wolves.″

″Peace seems a little tenuous,″ said Bill Sanders, a teacher from Philadelphia. ″The presence of the occupation army is evident.″

But most pilgrims at the services said the heavy security in Shepherds’ Field and Manger Square in nearby Bethlehem did not detract from the religious atmosphere. ″I feel very safe here,″ said Bill Graham of Bradenton, Fla.

″What amazes me is that there are three religions and three cultures here and they can coexist with each other,″ said Graham, referring to Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Graham said he was spending his second Christmas in the Bethlehem area.

Today there are ruins of a Byzantine church and a medieval monastery at the one-acre site, and a YMCA is located nearby.

″This is the way to celebrate Christmas, have a party and go pray about it. A little bit of the sacred and a little bit of fun,″ said Elizabeth Reis, 39, a teacher from Kalamazoo, Mich. who joined the crowd in Manger Square.

But some people were were disappointed by the lighthearted atmosphere. ″It’s a circus. Something like the Fourh of July in the States,″ said Harold Stone, 64, of Detroit. ″I thought it would be more religious instead of people partying and peddling goods.″

But many felt like Randy Eckardt, 29, an actor from Los Angeles. ″In America on Christmas, you tend to get caught up in deciding what to give to who. Here you are really reminded of Jesus.″

Forty-four U.S. servicemen came from their ships docked in the northern Israeli port of Haifa to sing carols and celebrate Mass in a small Roman Catholic church, which was lit by oil lamps and filled to capacity with about 100 pilgrims.

The servicemen said they had tied up the ship-to-shore telephone lines with holiday calls to the United States and planned to make more on Christmas Day.

″First thing I’ll do when I get back to the ship is call my brother. He’s a minister in Alberta, Canada, and I should be able to talk with him right before he delivers his sermon,″ said Cmdr. Larry Jilhan, 41, of San Diego, Calif. Jilhan is assigned to the frigate USS Paul.

Although the sailors will have a special Christmas turkey dinner aboard ship, many said their brief visit to Shepherds Field was the highlight of their holiday.

Some of the other 300 crew members were to attend services in Nazareth, a U.S. Navy spokesman said. The New Testament says Mary learned of Jesus’ impending birth in Nazareth.

Contingents of two Middle East peacekeeping forces were also expected in the Bethlehem area: the 11-nation, 2,600-member Multinational Force and Observers, which monitors the Egyptian-Israeli peace in the Sinai Desert, and the nine-nation, 5,600-member United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon.

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