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Few Pilgrims Turn Out for Christmas Celebrations in Bethlehem - 2003-12-25

Hundreds of pilgrims have gathered with local faithful at services in Bethlehem to mark Christmas in the birthplace of Jesus. Ross Dunn visited the West Bank town where the Israeli Army eased military restrictions to allow celebrations to be held.

Only a handful of pilgrims joined local Palestinian Christians this year in celebrating the birth of Jesus.

The small numbers underlined how far Bethlehem has fallen as a magnet for tourism. In better years, the town has seen tens and even hundreds of thousands of visitors for Christmas.

Now, most are afraid to make the journey, fearful of being caught in the Israeli-Palestinian violence that has ravaged the area for more than three years and still shows no signs of ending.

But despite this, Anglican Archbishop Riah Abu Al-Assal, himself a Palestinian, delivered a message of hope and reconciliation at an outdoor service in Bethlehem.

"We are called to wipe out all the tears from the crying eyes, break down the barriers and do away with all the walls that separate people from people," he said. "Built up trust and built up bridges and on keep on singing with greater hope joy to the world, the Lord is come."

His address took place in a hollow carved out from a barren rocky field.

The service included several readings from the New Testament to emphasize that it was exactly in this humble setting, that the scriptures say the Virgin Mary gave birth to the Messiah.

The problems in finding accommodation that beset Mary and Joseph do not exist today. Bethlehem is full of empty hotels built for a boom in tourism that never materialized.

To reach the town, one must pass through the Israeli military checkpoint at the entrance to the West Bank that divides Bethlehem from Jerusalem.

In order to accommodate pilgrims, the soldiers allowed most to enter this Christmas with few delays.

This was well appreciated by the few foreign visitors, who made the trip in spite of the dangers and difficulties. Some among them said it was an experience they would cherish for many years to come.