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Jerusalem tensions cast shadow over Holy Land Christmas

AFP , Ahram Online , Sunday 24 Dec 2017
Santa
A man dressed as Santa Claus gestures as the convoy of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Pierbattista Pizzaballa arrives through an Israeli checkpoint to attend Christmas celebrations, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem December 24, 2017. (Photo: Reuters)
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Palestinian scouts played drums and bagpipes as Christmas celebrations began in Bethlehem on Sunday, but many tourists stayed away with tensions still simmering following Washington's decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

The controversial December 6 announcement by President Donald Trump unleashed demonstrations and clashes, including in the Israeli-occupied West Bank city Bethlehem, where Christians will mark the birth of Jesus in a midnight mass.

Trump's decision ends a 37-year-old US foreign policy position of not recognising – along with the international community – Israel's 1980 decision to annex occupied East Jerusalem and designate a "unified Jerusalem" as an eternal capital for Israel.

The Palestinians have been seeking to establish an independent state with east Jerusalem as its capital.

On Bethlehem's Manger Square, dozens of Palestinians and tourists gathered excitedly in the cold near a huge nativity scene and Christmas tree to watch the annual scout parade.

They took pictures as scouts, some playing bagpipes, marched through the square towards the Church of the Nativity, built over the spot where tradition says Mary gave birth to Jesus.

Celebrations were to culminate at the church later on Sunday with midnight mass.

The square is usually thronging with tourists on Christmas Eve, but clashes between Palestinian protesters and the Israeli army in the past weeks have kept people away this year.

Nahil Banura, a Christian woman from Beit Sahur, a town near Bethlehem, said Trump's decision had made the run-up to Christmas "miserable".

"People are only going out to vent," said the 67-year-old, whose granddaughter wore a Santa Claus hat and clutched a pink balloon.

Perhaps as few as 50,000 Palestinian Christians make up just around two percent of the predominantly Muslim population of the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, has said "dozens" of foreign visitors had cancelled their Christmas trips after Trump's announcement.

In a statement before Christmas, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas said Trump's announcement "encouraged the illegal disconnection between the holy cities of Bethlehem and Jerusalem, both separated for the first time in over 2,000 years of Christianity".

Abbas called on "world Christians to listen to the true voices of the indigenous Christians from the Holy Land... that strongly rejected the US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital".

"They are the descendants of the first followers of Jesus Christ and an integral part of the Palestinian people," Abbas said, calling the local Christian community "an inherent part of our societies".

 

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