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Peace, Hope in the Air on Christmas ’93

<i> From Associated Press</i>

Full-fledged Christmas celebrations returned to Bethlehem on Saturday, Pope John Paul II spoke of growing hope and gnawing hate, U.S. soldiers in Somalia enjoyed a little home cooking--of sorts--and millions of holiday homebodies across America got a well-deserved break from shopping malls and the ring of cash registers.

In the occupied West Bank, the clamor of bells bounced off the stone walls of the 1,600-year-old Church of Nativity and across Bethlehem’s Manger Square. Pilgrims joined a procession to a grotto traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus.

Altogether, police estimated that more than 20,000 visitors came over the weekend, more than twice the number who came last year.

The peace accord signed between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization in September has brought optimism to this town of 60,000.

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“For the first time in 10 years we celebrated a true Christmas with joy and happiness, thanks to the peace process,” said souvenir shop owner Gerris Freij, the mayor’s oldest son.

In his annual Christmas message on Saturday, the Pope praised the Middle East peace-seekers while decrying the “inhuman logic” that locks regions in ethnic warfare.

“Let Christmas, this blessed family day, become for everyone a day of hope and peace,” he said.

Speaking from a window overlooking sunbathed St. Peter’s Square, the Pope issued sweeping denunciations of the civil bloodshed in Africa, Bosnia and former Soviet republics.

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“May the light of Bethlehem . . . shine upon the suffering peoples of Bosnia-Herzegovina, of the wider region of southeastern Europe, where violence tries to impose its own law without regard for anyone,” the pontiff said.

“Nor is Africa spared the inhuman logic of inter-ethnic conflicts,” the Pope told more than 150,000 people gathered in the square, citing violence in Somalia, Burundi and Angola.

But he said recent peace overtures between Arab and Israeli leaders offer hope through their “tenacity and courage.”

In Mogadishu, Somalia, the burgers, hot dogs and fries at Bogart’s Take Away were a welcome relief for American soldiers sweating their way through Christmas.

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“I went to midnight services last night and it was really touching,” Brig. Gen. Mario Montero of Castro Valley, Calif., said Saturday, munching the free coffee cake that the Bogart’s staff prepared for the holiday. “They miss their homes and they miss their families. But they have each other.”

With their complete withdrawal to take place before March 31, most of the 10,200 U.S. troops in Somalia are keeping off the streets of Mogadishu and inside their bases or the huge U.N. compound.

Back in the United States, long post office lines and packed parking lots gave way to a relaxed time when families gather and reflect on the true meaning of the holiday, if only for a day.

Just being alive was enough for Dan Stickney, 47, a father of six recovering from his second heart transplant.

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“I don’t think I would have made it to Christmas” without the new heart, said Stickney, who lives just outside Philadelphia. “I’m just going to enjoy my family, enjoy life and enjoy Christmas.”

The essence of Christmas was evident in the Chicago area, where an anonymous donor, or donors, dropped gold coins into Salvation Army kettles.

Five gold coins turned up, worth up to $400 each.

“My theory is that it’s someone who likes what the Salvation Army does and who’s well enough off that they can afford to give a gift without the tax write-off,” Salvation Army Lt. Col. Gary Herndon said.

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At Nogales, Ariz., Ronald McDonald and a mariachi band entertained about 2,000 needy Mexican children who crossed the border Saturday for presents and a holiday meal at McDonald’s.

It was the 18th year that Mayor Jose Canchola had held the party at his fast-food restaurant. “What good is Christmas if you can’t make children smile?” Canchola said.


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