To Christians, the city of Bethlehem is holy because it was the place of Jesusí birth. It is situated in the West Bank (of the Jordan River), currently under Palestinian control. Thousands of pilgrims (both foreigners and Christian Arabs) make their way to Bethlehem around Christmas time every year. Many merchants in the city have come to count on tourist money for their livelihoods, though Mid-East violence has made travel in the area dangerous.
Part of the Christmas Eve tradition in Bethlehem is a midnight Mass at St. Catherineís Church (adjacent to the Church of the Nativity), and it is consistently well attended. This year, Manger Square was nearly empty. There was no decorated Christmas tree in front of the Church, only an inflated Santa Claus with Palestinian flags a few blocks away.
An occurrence on November 22 of this year began a series of events that accounts for the small number of religious sightseers. On that date a Bethlehem man detonated a bomb on a Jerusalem bus, killing himself and 11 Israelis. One day later, the Israeli army moved in to occupy Bethlehem. They remained there until Christmas Eve.
Fullfilling a promise to the Pope, the Israelis on December 24 pulled its armor and troops back to positions on the edge of the city to " ... facilitate the celebrations ...", to allow Christmas activities to take place. Their president stated , "There is now no curfew ...Where we need not be, we will not be."
To protest Israelís "invasion," the Bethlehem city government called for a boycott. (Mayor Hanna Nasser called this the "saddest Christmas.") They asked local people to turn off lights, avoid media interviews, and decline to take part in the annual procession from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.
Leading that caravan was the Latin Patriarch (currently Michael Sabbah), the highest-ranking Roman Catholic clergyman in the Holy Land. The group of marchers came as scheduled and were met in Bethlehem by a group of Palestinian Boy Scouts carrying Palestianian flags and pictures of P. L. O. leader Yassir Arafat. The Patriarch conducted midnight Mass as scheduled, but there were only a few worshippers.
Two Israeli groups sent representatives to Bethlehem to show solidarity with the protestors. Some of them brought wrapped gifts for Palestinian children, and all held meetings with city officials. One Israeli newspaper criticized the way Bethlehemís Christmas was handled by the government and said the countryís international reputation was suffering.