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Christians Celebrate Around World

December 25, 1997

From the land where Christmas was born to the island where it disappeared for nearly three decades, Christians set aside daily worries to celebrate the season with song, prayer and Santa Claus.

In Cuba, where Dec. 25 has been declared an official holiday for the first time since 1969, Roman Catholic churches held traditional midnight Masses. Prayers and secular traditions mixed in Bethlehem, the Vatican and worldwide.

A huge Christmas tree towered in St. Peter’s Square near a softly illuminated nativity scene. In his Christmas homily, broadcast in more than 50 countries, John Paul spoke of the universal joy of the holiday. His Christmas wish: ``Peace to humanity.″

The pope’s planned visit to Cuba in January apparently elicited a bit of holiday spirit from Fidel Castro, who said Christmas this year would be an official holiday. Although his communist country is largely atheist, Cubans crowded Midnight Masses throughout the capital.

``I just came to see,″ said one man, watching from the wooden doors of Havana’s cathedral. ``I remember the Christmas trees at my grandparents’ house, the Christmas dinners. And then they just disappeared.″

Christmas trees, cider and other holiday items sold out weeks ago, and Cuban families were cooking up pork, black beans and rice _ for many, the traditional holiday meals they remember from 30 years ago.

In Bethlehem, the town where Jesus was born, fireworks filled the sky and choirs sang in Manger Square. A bomb scare delayed the area’s top Catholic clergyman, but eventually Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah joined thousands of pilgrims and Palestinians.

Sabbah’s message, which he had an extra 90 minutes to think about at an Israeli roadblock: ``Peace is stumbling.″ He urged Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to be ``wise and courageous.″

And Santa, of course, brightened Christmas with all sorts of packages: a $10 billion surprise for South Korea from the IMF, a holiday reprieve for an American accused of spying in Russia, bellydancing for the slightly naughty crowd partying in Cairo.

Some deliveries proved problematic.

Britons’ traditional Christmas pudding has a density remarkably similar to Semtex explosives _ and the rich treat has the same effect on X-ray scanners at the Manchester, England, airport. Hand-searches didn’t appear to dampen the holiday spirit.

Others came with strings attached.

Richard Bliss, accused of spying in southern Russia, headed home today to spend the holidays in California with his family. The Russian government and Bliss’ employer, San Diego-based Qualcomm Inc., reached an agreement allowing the visit, but Bliss must return to Russia on Jan. 10.

The field technician was installing a new cellular communications system in Rostov-on-Don when he was detained Nov. 25. He spent 12 days in jail before being freed on condition that he didn’t leave the city.

A late-night announcement brings an early infusion of cash to debt-ridden South Korea, $10 billion from the $57 billion bailout deal put together by the International Monetary Fund. In return for the early loans _ $2 billion by Monday and $8 billion by early January _ South Korea has agreed to expedite economic reforms.

Most South Koreans heard about the money Christmas morning. As South Korea’s MBC-TV put it: ``The International Monetary Fund may not be a Santa Claus, but it brought us good news this morning.″

And a few deliveries, well, maybe even Santa has a naughty streak.

Cairo’s trendy night spots were featuring fleshy, flashy belly-dancing Christmas fantasies _ gala celebrations normally reserved for New Year’s Eve. But this year, the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, a time when Muslims abstain from food, drink, sex and smoking from dawn to dusk, is expected to begin Dec. 31. So, the party moved up a week.

Daniel Hobbs, a British sales representative in Cairo on business, planned to go see Dina, one of Egypt’s top belly dancers. It’s a way, he says, of softening the blow of Christmas away from family.

Besides, he says, ``Daddy’s been a good boy this year.″

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