Arafat was the ghost of Christmas past in
`saddest-ever' Bethlehem rites By Ha'aretz Staff and Reuters
[Ha'aretz - 26 Dec]
Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat was but a ghost of Christmas past at Midnight Mass early Wednesday morning in Bethlehem, his empty chair a symbol of holiday gloom for Palestinians who described this year's holiday observance as the saddest Christmas ever.
For the second straight year, Israel barred Arafat from making the short trip from his headquarters in Ramallah, accusing the Palestinian leader of fomenting violence.
An Israel Defense Forces pullback to the outskirts of the Palestinian-ruled West Bank town failed to bring much joy to residents who had been largely confined to their homes under military curfew during a month-long reoccupation, instituted after a Bethlehem suicide bomber killed 11 people, four of them schoolchildren, on a Jerusalem bus.
"It is the saddest Christmas ever for us here," Estella Mubarak, a 60-year-old grandmother, said inside the church built on the spot where Christians believe Jesus was born. "The worst thing is we cannot afford to buy any presents for our children."
Two years of Israeli-Palestinian violence have scared pilgrims away. There were few lights, ornaments or tourists to usher in the holiday season. Souvenir shops have gone out of business and hotels have closed for lack of guests.
The Latin Patriarch in the Holy Land issued a strong appeal for an end to strife and occupation. Speaking to a packed congregation at Midnight Mass in the Roman Catholic Saint Catherine's church, adjoining the Church of the Nativity, Patriarch Michel Sabbah told Israelis: "Blood has been flowing in your cities and streets, but the key to solving this conflict is in your hands. By your actions so far, you have crushed the Palestinian people but you still have not achieved peace."
Sabbah, a Palestinian, addressed the empty chair that Arafat, a Muslim, had occupied in past years. "We wish you were with us tonight, and we call on God to give you the wisdom and the power under this siege to continue your mission toward peace and justice," Sabbah said.