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Violence Overshadows Bethlehem Christmas

January 6, 2003

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) _ Orthodox Christians celebrated a low-key Christmas on Monday, overshadowed by the threat of possible Israeli retaliation for twin Palestinian suicide attacks that killed 22 people in Tel Aviv a day earlier.

A few hundred people _ compared to tens of thousands in previous years _ gathered to watch the procession of the four Orthodox Patriarchs through streets devoid of decorations, in protest at the Israeli army’s occupation of the city.

Most Orthodox Christians follow the old Gregorian calendar, which places Christmas on Jan. 7.

The procession ended in Manger Square and the crowd quickly dispersed, skipping the daylong celebrations of previous years.

Adding to the gloomy atmosphere, Israeli soldiers surrounded a building just 500 yards from the Church of the Nativity and imposed a curfew in the neighborhood, though not in the area of the basilica, Palestinian witnesses said. Four people were arrested while the soldiers continued to operate in the area, they added.

With its economy devastated by more than two years of violence and Israel’s reoccupation of the town, which scared off nearly all the tourists, Palestinian Christians said they would use Christmas to pray for peace.

``We hope this wave of violence will end in Israel and inside the Palestinian territories,″ said Fadi Safar, 20, an Orthodox Christian who works in a Bethlehem music shop.

``We’ll pray for peace tonight on Christmas Eve, for the sake of both peoples,″ he added.

The Israeli security Cabinet decided in an overnight meeting to crack down harder on Palestinian militants after two suicide bombers blew up seconds apart in an old area of Tel Aviv where many foreign workers live.

Bethlehem was reoccupied after a suicide bomber from the town blew himself up on a Jerusalem bus on Nov. 21, killing 11 passengers. Now the residents fear life will be even more difficult after weeks under almost total curfew.

``There is no joy in Bethlehem. The violence, the suffering, the dead economy have stolen the happiness. There is a lack of peace,″ said George Bassous, 26, who came with his wife to attend the procession and mass.

``The people have lost the hope in the future and to reach a peaceful solution. There is no peace in Bethlehem during the birth of the lord of peace, Jesus Christ,″ Bassous added.

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