Plans for Christmas festivities in Bethlehem, the cradle of Christianity, have come to a premature end as the town remains virtually sealed off from the outside world because of the violence raging in the region.

This West Bank town has been under siege and isolated from the rest of the world since the start of the Palestinian uprising against Israeli rule, almost two months ago.

Bethlehem is only a ten-minute drive from Jerusalem. But reaching the place is now no easy matter. Foreign tourists who wish to make the journey—and there are almost none willing to do so—have to seek special permission to cross through an Israeli military checkpoint at the entrance to the West Bank.

If approval is given by the Israeli soldiers, barricades are temporarily lifted. But the situation in the town is at best bleak and at worst life-threatening. On the main street of Bethlehem almost every shop and restaurant is firmly closed, as they have been since the start of the violence.

The town's mayor, Hanna Nasser, a Roman Catholic, does not believe the situation will improve before Christmas.

Tourists had cancelled their visits and were no longer coming to Bethlehem, he told ENI. He believed that even at Christmas there would be only "a few hundred" people this year instead of the 20,000 or so foreign tourists and worshipers who normally gather in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve.

On the days that there are no clashes in Bethlehem, it is possible to reach the town's central plaza, Manger Square. The area is adjacent to the Church of the Nativity, where tradition holds that Jesus was born. Instead of Christian tourists, angry Islamic activists gather in Manger square for political meetings, an area that had been dressed up to showcase celebrations for the 2000th anniversary year of Christ's birth.

Because of the clashes, the activities planned for the last three months of the anniversary year had been "canceled altogether", Nasser said.

Miguel Murado, a spokesperson for the Bethlehem 2000 project, set up by the Palestinian Authority to organize events to mark the new millennium, told ENI that the high point of the Christmas Eve celebrations featuring choirs from around the world had been canceled. There was some debate about whether local choirs would replace them as a tribute to the people of Bethlehem, but this was far from clear because of the ongoing violence in the West Bank and Israel's military closure of the Palestinian areas.

He said all religious services would go ahead as planned but it was doubtful whether there would be any festivities in Manger Square. "All festive activities have been canceled for the present time," he said. "We cannot celebrate under this situation."

Copyright © 2000 ENI

Related Elsewhere

To read more about festivities that had been planned for this season visit the Bethlehem 2000 homepage.

Other media coverage of the Israel and Palestine includes:

Arafat rejects Barak's peace offer—ITN (Nov. 30, 2000)

Two Palestinians killed in Mideast confrontations—UPI (Nov. 30, 2000)

Silent Night in Bethlehem—The New York Daily News (Nov. 30, 2000)

Yuletide cheer canceled in Bethlehem—The Atlanta Journal Constitution (Nov. 30, 2000)

Soldiers kill Palestinian student - medics—The Independent (Nov. 30, 2000)

Previous Christianity Today stories include:

How Evangelicals Became Israel's Best Friend | (October 5, 1998)

Lutheran Bishop's Appeal from Jerusalem | Religious leader's letter requests prayer for Christians, Jews, and Palestinians in troubled region. (Nov. 10, 2000)

Latin Patriarch tells Israel to Surrender Lands to Palestinians | Catholic leader says Israel will never have peace unless it "converts all of its neighbors to friends." (Nov. 1, 2000)

Fighting Engulfs a Christian Hospital in Jerusalem | Lutherans call conflict on their hospital grounds "an affront" to humanitarian purposes. (Oct. 16, 2000)

Preparing for Pilgrims | Religious rivalry complicates millennial planning. (June 14, 1999)