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Holy Land Celebrates Christmas - 2003-12-25


The Christmas celebrations that began Wednesday in Bethlehem, have now been repeated at services across the Holy Land.

It was not in Bethlehem that these pilgrims, including hundreds from Nigeria, gathered to celebrate Christmas.

The holiday celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. But this service was held at the Garden Tomb, a site just outside Jerusalem's walled Old City, where some believe Jesus was crucified, buried and rose from the dead.

For chaplain Ken Trestrail, a Baptist Minister, the Christmas celebrations at this shrine were entirely appropriate because, in his view, the story of Jesus' birth cannot be separated from his crucifixion.

"Because, I believe that in the mind of the Almighty, in the mind of the Father, before ever he saw the star at Bethlehem, he was convinced of the cross at Calvary," he said.

The rousing sermon on religious themes delivered by Mr. Trestrail contrasted sharply with the somber and more overtly political one given at a mass conducted earlier in Bethlehem by the Latin Patriarch, Michel Sabbah, the senior Roman Catholic clergyman in the Holy Land.

The patriarch, who is a Palestinian, strongly condemned the security barrier Israel is now building in the West Bank.

Israel says the project is necessary to prevent terror attacks. But Archbishop Sabbah says it is turning Palestinian cites and villages into a huge prison, and contradicts what he called the true nature of the Holy Land, which he said is a place where two peoples should live together in peace.

For a third straight year, Israel barred the Palestinian President Yasser Arafat from attending the mass in the West Bank town. His seat in the front pew was left empty, draped with a kaffiah.

Mr. Arafat's picture hung outside the Church of the Nativity, built on the spot where tradition holds Jesus was born. The words Stop Strangling Bethlehem were written underneath.

But at the Garden Tomb service in Jerusalem, visiting pilgrims refrained from injecting politics into the service.

Angilican Bishop Ikechi Nwosu, who led a flock of pilgrims from his native Nigeria, instead called on God to bless the gathering.

"The peace of God, which passes human understanding, that peace which surpasses even the turmoil in Bethlehem at this time, that peace which is the fortune of every child of God and the Holy Spirit, be your fortune, now and forever more," said Bishop Nwosu.

Bishop Nwosu concluded by imploring the faithful to go forth and proclaim the message of Christmas. And his followers gave him good reason to believe they are already answering his call.