BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Thousands of people joined by marching bands, clergymen in magenta skullcaps and children dressed as Santa Claus celebrated Christmas Eve in the center of Bethlehem Sunday, doing their best to dispel the gloom hovering over Jesus’ traditional birthplace.
Most were local residents or Christian Arabs from neighboring Israel with a sprinkling of foreign tourists.
“It hasn’t really set in that I am here in Bethlehem where everything happened so many thousand years ago,” said an overwhelmed Matt Lafontaine, a 21-year-old university student from Plymouth, Minnesota. “It’s really exciting. It’s just starting to set in. It’s surreal.”
In an annual tradition, Bethlehem’s residents enacted Christmas rituals that seem out of place in the Middle East. Palestinian Scouts marched through the streets, some wearing kilts and pompom-topped berets, playing drums and bagpipes. They passed inflatable red-suited Santas, looking forlorn in the West Bank sunshine.
Other scenes of this Bethlehem Christmas, however, could be found nowhere else. To get to town, Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, the Roman Catholic Church’s highest official in the Holy Land, rode in his motorcade through a huge steel gate in the Israeli separation barrier that separates Jerusalem from Bethlehem.
Israel says it built the barrier to prevent Palestinian suicide bombers from reaching Israeli population centers. Palestinians view the structure, which dips into parts of the West Bank, as a land grab.
The robed clergyman was led into Palestinian-controlled territory by a formal escort of five Israeli policemen mounted on horses. Two Israeli Border Police troops closed the gate behind him.
“God wants us all to be peacemakers. He wants every believer who has faith in God _ Jewish, Muslim or Christian _ to work to make peace,” Sabbah said in his annual Christmas address at his Jerusalem office before departing for Bethlehem. “Our leaders so far have only made war, they haven’t made peace,” Sabbah said.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a Muslim, joined the celebrations, expressing hope that his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert Saturday would lead to a peace breakthrough.
“I congratulate our people, especially our Christian brothers, not only here but all around the world for Christmas and the New Year, God bless us,” he said. He called his meeting with Olmert “a good start.”
Sabbah, wearing a flowing gold and burgundy robe, led a procession into St. Catherine’s Church, adjacent to the traditional birthplace of Jesus for midnight Mass.
Hundreds of worshippers packed the cavernous church for the service, as clergymen chanted in Latin amid the sound of bells and organ music. Abbas attended the ceremony, escorted by a large security detail to a front row seat.
Bethlehem’s tourist industry has been hit hard by the last six years of Israeli-Palestinian violence and by the barrier, which Israel began building in 2002, but also by internal Palestinian friction.
This Christmas is the first under a Palestinian Authority governed by the militant Islamic group Hamas. To alleviate Christian fears ahead of the holiday, Hamas promised that it would send $50,000 to decorate Manger Square in the center of town for the holiday. It was not clear if the money ever arrived.
Even so, Manger Square and the surrounding buildings were decorated in neon lights. Bands performed on a stage, and a large screen beamed images of Palestinian flags and officials.
Standing outside his empty souvenir shop, George Baboul said this is the “worst Christmas” he has seen in more than 30 years. Baboul’s shop, the “Bethlehem Star Store,” is in a prime location, at the side of the Church of the Nativity, but he said there is no business.
“No tourists are coming,” said Baboul, 72, who opened the shop in 1967. “I don’t know what’s the reason for that. There are no problems, Bethlehem is safe, but tourists are afraid to come.”
Bethlehem’s mayor, Victor Batarseh, said his city would celebrate Christmas despite the hardship.
“With all this oppression, this economic stress, physical stress, psychological stress, we are defying all these obstacles and we are celebrating Christmas so that we’ll put joy into the faces of our children, joy to the citizens of Bethlehem,” he said.
By evening, Manger Square was bustling with thousands of people. The small contingent of foreign tourists in Bethlehem this year included a Polish choir group and a handful of pilgrims from South Korea who gathered to sing carols in one corner of the square, interrupted briefly by the loud call to prayer from a nearby mosque.
“It’s exciting. I can feel that Jesus was here,” said Jae Hwan Kim, 29, of Seoul.
Israel’s Tourism Ministry forecast 18,000 tourists would visit Bethlehem this year, up from 16,000 last year, but far below the tens of thousands of people who thronged Manger Square at the height of peacemaking in the 1990s.
The only large foreign contingent was made up of around 200 Filipino Christians who work in Israel. They made the short trip to Bethlehem with their spiritual leader, Father Angelo. The small, bubbly priest wearing a brown frock predicted 3,000 Filipinos would arrive in Bethlehem on Christmas Day.
“It’s Christmas, it’s time for joy, hope and peace, and happiness for all,” he said.
With every Christmas, the Holy Land’s Christian community shrinks a bit. The native Palestinian Christian population has dipped below 2 percent of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Arab East Jerusalem, down from at least 15 percent in 1950, by some estimates. Bethlehem is now less than 20 percent Christian.
In Gaza, where 3,000 Christians live among around 1.4 million Muslims, the head of the tiny Roman Catholic community, Father Manuel Musallem, canceled Midnight Mass celebration, citing recent Palestinian infighting between Fatah and Hamas.
“The children told me Santa Claus won’t come this year because it’s too dangerous,” he said.