Bethlehem Christmas: Candles, Troops

Associated Press

Hundreds of worshipers huddled in a cave, lit candles and kissed the floor as they celebrated Christmas in a church built on the site where tradition says Jesus was born.

Outside the Church of the Nativity, clusters of Israeli troops patrolled a sunny Manger Square while Palestinian children sold candy bars and beaded necklaces to the tourists.

The atmosphere in Bethlehem, a city of 60,000 Palestinians, was subdued in contrast to the loud festivities of Christmas Eve when choirs sang carols and marchers played bagpipes.

The only music heard in the plaza Christmas Day was the pealing of church bells beckoning worshipers to an underground grotto where priests said Mass at the traditional spot of Jesus' birth almost 2,000 years ago.

"May this offering on the day of Christmas renew peace in the land," intoned Father Meir Tobey, 71.

Jewish Convert Presides

Tobey, a Jesuit from Holy Trinity Church in Washington, D.C., said he converted from Judaism 47 years ago and had been baptized on Christmas.

"To say Mass in Bethlehem on Christmas is an overwhelming thanksgiving for this, and as though the Lord wants me to bring the light from the manger to the rest of the world," he said.

"It's breathtaking. Here you capture the whole feeling of Christmas. No one should miss this experience. It's like a dream, to actually live the Bible," said Dr. Bernard Conway, 67, from London.

"I find it all fascinating here, not as commercial as in America. It shows you what Christmas was really like," said Roc Ordman, 38, of Beloit, Wis.

Merchants Not So Happy

But while visitors were enthralled, merchants in the shopping arcade on the square complained about fewer tourists.

"This is the worst year we've ever had," said Angela Giacaman, a clerk in a shop that sells Christian ornaments made of olive wood.

Israeli officials said that about 70,000 pilgrims and tourists visited Bethlehem this year, about the same as last year when a 20% drop in tourism was reported. The officials blamed the decline on an increase in Middle East terror attacks.

The army also tightened security for most of the holiday, and even the city's mayor, Elias Freij, said he was stopped for identification at a checkpost.

But by Christmas Day, most of the troops were gone. Few visitors were searched or asked to show passports.

Global Celebration

Elsewhere around the world, hundreds of millions of Christians marked the holiday with song and celebration, feasts and fireworks, protest and prayer.

In the predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines, rebels took advantage of a cease-fire in their nearly 18-year-old insurgency to come down from the hills and spend the holiday with loved ones.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Mother Teresa of Calcutta celebrated the holiday in the Philippines, attending midnight Mass in Dagupan City, where she plans to set up a home for lepers.

President Corazon Aquino, who took office in February after a military-civilian revolt ended Ferdinand E. Marcos' 20-year rule, said in a Christmas message to her people, "I ask you, in this first Christmas in pride and freedom, to forgive and forget, to give democracy a chance to work and peace the chance to work."

Poles watched native son Pope John Paul II say midnight Mass broadcast from the Vatican on state television for the first time. Many stayed home to watch the service at St. Peter's Basilica instead of attending Christmas Eve Masses at their own churches.

Somber Holiday in Soweto

Christmas in the black township of Soweto outside Johannesburg, South Africa, was somber, with few outward signs of joy. Candles glowed from darkened windows in silent protest of the state of emergency under which thousands have been jailed without charge for their opposition to apartheid.

There were no Christmas trees and few presents in homes in the sprawling township, as some parents boycotted white stores and kept their lights off as part of the "Christmas against the emergency" campaign.

In the Soviet Union, Thursday was a working day like any other. The atheist Communist Party government has transferred all of the traditional Christmas celebrations--including decorated trees, presents and visits by a white-bearded old gentleman known as Grandfather Frost--to the New Year's holiday.

Thousands Attend in Moscow

Even so, thousands of Soviets and hundreds of Catholic diplomats, businessmen and students from the foreign community attended midnight Mass on Wednesday at Moscow's Polish Catholic Church.

In England, Archbishop of Canterbury Robert A. K. Runcie said in his Christmas sermon that good will during the holiday season is "a God-sent sign" of the possibility of peace on Earth.

The spiritual leader of the Church of England and leader of the world's 70 million Anglicans said the story of Jesus retold each Christmas stirs to life the human qualities of decency, kindness and thoughtfulness that give hope for peace.

Tens of thousands of Vietnam's faithful celebrated Christmas in cities throughout the Communist country, which Western human rights organizations have accused of harassing the 3 million Vietnamese Catholics.

In China, about 3,000 people pressed into Bei Tang Cathedral in Peking for its second Christmas Mass since being reopened last year on Christmas Eve after being used as a warehouse for 27 years.

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