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Arafat Calls Travel Ban Violation of Religious Freedom

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat went on Palestinian TV Monday to condemn Israel's ban on his travel to Bethlehem as a crime and a violation of religious freedom.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said Israel has violated religious freedoms by banning his travel and restricting Palestinian Christians trying to get from the West Bank and Gaza to Bethlehem. "There will never be any security for any worshipper in the shadow of a tank and there won't be peace for humanity while the right of people to free and dignified life is interrupted or under-estimated," said Mr. Arafat.

In his televised address, Yasser Arafat said Israeli tanks and concrete checkpoints had prevented him from attending Christmas Eve Mass in Bethlehem. He has attended the city's festivities since 1995 when the city came under Palestinian control.

"The whole world, which has seen what happened, we say they have to know what kind of terror the worshippers on this Holy Land are facing and what kind of threat is endangering their freedom to worship in one of the holiest shrines in history," Mr. Arafat said. "We would stress it is very necessary to put an end to Israeli occupation and build an independent Palestinian state with its capital being Jerusalem, which will then honor the freedom of worship to everybody."

Israel banned Mr. Arafat from Bethlehem unless he handed over Palestinian suspects linked to the murder last October of Israel's Tourism Minister.

Diplomats and several members of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government called the ban on Yasser Arafat's travel inflammatory. But international pressure and even the Vatican's efforts to mediate could not persuade him to compromise.

Mr. Arafat has been a virtual prisoner in the West Bank town of Ramallah since Israel destroyed his helicopters three weeks ago and intensified its military operations in the Palestinian territories. Israel complained that Mr. Arafat has not done enough to crack down on terrorism and took matters into its own hands.

Ironically, the area has been relatively calm for the past week after Mr. Arafat made a public appeal for an end to attacks against Israel. But Monday evening a Palestinian militant group shot and wounded a Jewish settler in the West. The Al Aqsa Brigade said it carried out the attack as revenge for the travel ban on Yasser Arafat.