Elias Freij; Former Mayor of Bethlehem
Elias Freij, 80, who was mayor of Bethlehem for 25 years. Until his retirement last year, Freij had emerged annually into world prominence as caretaker of Jesus’ birthplace and host to a yearly Christmas Eve party outside the Church of the Nativity. A standard-bearer for Palestinian moderation, Freij was named the first Palestinian minister of tourism when Yasser Arafat set up an autonomous Palestinian government in 1994. Freij had long advocated Arab-Israeli coexistence, earning him enmity over the years from Israelis and Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization. A Greek-Orthodox Christian, Freij came from a family that traced its ancestry in Bethlehem back 500 years through church records. He was born in Bethlehem and graduated from the British-run Bishop Gobat School in Jerusalem. Freij owned several shops that sold olive wood and mother-of-pearl souvenirs. On Sunday in Amman, Jordan, of kidney and heart failure.