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Bethlehem Festivities Threatened By Violence in Territories

December 20, 1987

BETHLEHEM, Occupied West Bank (AP) _ Christmas festivities in Bethlehem, the annual highlight in this hilltop town where Jesus was born, are in danger of being sharply curtailed this year because of Arab-Israeli violence.

Mayor Elias Freij said Sunday he was under mounting pressure to cancel all non-religious functions surrounding the holiday to protest a wave of violence in occupied territories in which Israeli troops killed at least 15 Arab demonstrators.

Official Christmas functions are scheduled to begin Thursday morning in this town four miles south of Jerusalem, and include an annual reception attended by Israeli officials that symbolizes Jewish-Arab coexistence.

The New Testament gives Bethlehem as the site of Jesus’ birth. Thousands of pilgrims from throughout the world traditionally come here over Christmas.

″Certain elements want me to cancel many Christmas activities,″ the Christian Arab mayor said in a telephone interview. He said he did not agree with the idea, but that continued unrest might nevertheless force a severe curtailment in festivities.

″We’ll have to wait and see what happens over the next few days,″ Freij said. ″There is no reason to mix politics and Christmas. But we don’t know how bad the situation will get.″

He did not say who was exerting pressure, but Christian youth groups and leaders issued a recent statement urging that Christmas celebrations be limited to prayer services.

″We are calling for Christians this year to pray for peace in the region and not waste time with useless festivities,″ said Geris Khoury, a religious studies professor at Vatican-sponsored Bethlehem University who joined in the appeal.

Freij said the violence had already seriously affected tourism. During a normal Christmas season, about 50,000 tourists come to Bethlehem, visiting holy sites such as the historic Church of the Nativity on Manger Square.

″We’ve had very few visitors so far this year,″ Freij said. ″Obviously, the violence is having a serious impact.″

He blamed Israeli authorities: ″The troops are shooting at women and children. If they think we are going to accept this with red roses, they are mistaken.″

Business people in Bethlehem said they were deeply concerned over the drop in tourism and the financial losses they might suffer.

″Look at the streets, how empty they are,″ said Hader Ali, owner of the Al Altlal restaurant just off Manger Square. ″And look at my restaurant, how empty this is, too. I can’t stand it. I’m going off on vacation tomorrow.″

″This town lives for Christmas, financially,″ said Socrates Canavati, owner of a gift shop in town.

Bethlehem appeared quiet and empty Sunday. Only a few stray tourists strolled through deserted, rainy streets. A large presence of Israeli military police was already in evidence.

″My children think I’m crazy to be here,″ said Fran Stevenson, a retired telephone operator from Salt Lake City, as she gazed at a large Christmas tree in the square. ″But we’ve come to enjoy Christmas and we’re going to have a great time.″

″We’ll be brave,″ said her husband, Stanley, a retired police officer. ″But if we hear any gunshots out in the square Christmas eve, you can bet we’ll get out of here fast.″

The couple said they got their first taste of West Bank unrest Saturday, when they were caught in a cloud of tear gas as they walked near Arab east Jerusalem during some of the worst rioting the city had seen in 20 years of occupation.

There has been little violence in Bethlehem itself since Oct. 29, when the army closed the university for three months after a violent student protest in which a student was killed by Israeli gunfire. Last week, there was a demonstration at the neighboring Dheishe refugee camp that was dispersed with tear gas.

Israel took the West Bank and east Jerusalem from Jordan during the 1967 Middle east war, when it also seized the Gaza Strip from Egypt.

Israeli tourism officials denied that foreigners are canceling trips to Israel and said they expected an increase of 25 percent over the 50,000 visitors who came to Bethlehem in each of the last two seasons.

But Nina Kerner, a reservations clerk at the Jerusalem Hilton, said 10 to 15 bookings were canceled in the previous three days.

″We were full at this time last year, but now we have openings,″ she said. ″The disturbances are not so far away. People are afraid.″

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