Bethlehem, West Bank
The countdown to Christmas began on a rare optimistic note in Bethlehem as Christians celebrated Advent, the period of preparation for celebrating the birth of Jesus, and the start of the festive season.
“We hope that this year will be a better year,” said Rev. Amjad Sabara, the Roman Catholic pastor for Bethlehem, the town where Jesus was born, following services to mark Advent at the Church of the Nativity.
Many residents congregating outside the church in the battle-scarred West Bank town concurred by expressing the hope the spirit of Christmas would shine brightly on Bethlehem after four years of conflict with Israel, since a Palestinian uprising began in September 2000.
“People have the feeling that things will improve once again,” said resident Manhal Assaf.
The Roman Catholic Church of St. Catherine, in the Nativity complex, was crowded with worshippers as Palestinian Christians poured in to mark the start of the Christmas season. Worshippers stood in queues to see the manger which marks the spot where Jesus is said to have been born.
Tension in the town has subsided after almost a year free of serious conflict since the Israeli army raided the town following a suicide bombing committed by a Bethlehem militant.
Residents hoped the lack of violence in the town, as well as the start of a new era following the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, would entice Christians to celebrate the holiday in Bethlehem this year as they did in the past before the latest uprising, known as the second intifada.
Many of the souvenir shops around Manger Square where olive-wood nativity sets were once sold to throngs of tourists were boarded up and the main street, which before the uprising would have been packed with tourist buses, was empty.