- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 25, 2001

BETHLEHEM, West Bank Christmas Mass was celebrated at St. Catherine's Church next to the Church of Nativity as usual last night, but altar boy Johnny Talgieh was not in his normal place.
The angel-faced 17-year-old died two months ago on his way out of the church that marks Christ's birthplace, hit in the chest by a stray bullet during an evening clash between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers.
This Christmas, Johnny's relatives are reeling from a new blow the desecration of a small stone monument they erected in his memory early this month in Manger Square.
The stone, engraved with Biblical inscriptions in Arabic, was knocked down and left lying on the square a little more than a week after it was raised.
It remained there yesterday, surrounded by the rubble and bullet holes from a 10-day Israeli occupation in October and the banners of the intifada that turned last night's ceremony into a piece of political theater.
Also missing from last night's celebrations was Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who was barred from making his annual pilgrimage to Manger Square by Israeli officials angered at his failure to arrest those responsible for the murder of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi.
Mr. Arafat had vowed to defy the Israeli siege around his West Bank headquarters in Ramallah and somehow make it to Bethlehem, "even on foot."
That didn't happen. However, the Latin patriarch, the representative of Pope John Paul II in the Holy Land, made a point of visiting Mr. Arafat in Ramallah, where he criticized Israel's decision.
The patriarch also left a conspicuously empty chair with Mr. Arafat's name on it in a prominent place inside the church to signal his displeasure with the Israeli decision.
Danny Ayalon, a top aide to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said Israel was making a political statement by keeping Mr. Arafat away from Bethlehem. "There is not any connection here to freedom of religion," he said.
Intolerance is running high this Christmas in the city that is supposed to symbolize universal peace and brotherhood.
Christian homes in Bet Jala, a Bethlehem suburb, have been used as firing ranges in the fighting between Palestinians and Israelis, causing distress among the community and forcing many of them to leave town.
On Oct. 3, Mr. Arafat fired the governor of Bethlehem and the security chief. But the Christians remain worried and depressed. Many of them have left a staggering 1,200 out of the remaining estimated 10,000 have packed their bags this year alone, say local Christian mayors.
Christians had been a majority in this place of massive biblical importance, but one said last night, "We have lost our city."
It began when Muslims, mainly from Hebron to the south, sought a better life amid the relative prosperity of Bethlehem. Generous mortgage loans, financed from Arab Gulf states, gave them the economic means to buy Christian houses, and sellers became more plentiful as psychological and physical pressures were stepped up, local Christians say.
Now even the Catholic university here has a majority-Muslim student body and a student council dominated by supporters of radical Islamic groups.
None of this Christian-Muslim battle was obvious last night in Manger Square and inside the Nativity Church.
Political tensions kept away the pilgrims and choirs from all over the world who normally gather in Manger Square on Christmas Eve, leaving only those Christians who live in the area to celebrate the holiday.
The square itself was almost devoid of decorations. A Christmas tree was decorated with one light and a few colored balls.
The bitterness of the Christians was visible on the face of Johnny Talgieh's uncle, who blames the desecration of the stone monument on Muslims, who, for days after the stone was erected, would kick it when they walked past.
In the West Bank, an Israeli settler was critically wounded in a roadside shooting that a group belonging to Mr. Arafat's Fatah faction said was retaliation for Israel's treatment of their president.
The settler fatally shot one of the gunmen in an exchange of fire, just a little over a week after Mr. Arafat under intense international pressure to rein in militants behind suicide bombings in Israel called for a halt to attacks on Israelis.
Saying his "heart is heavy with sorrow," Mr. Arafat told the Palestinian people in a televised speech from the West Bank city of Ramallah that Israel had committed a crime by preventing a "believer in God and peace" from traveling to Bethlehem.
As night descended, a small group of foreigners played flutes, guitars and sang Christmas carols in front of souvenir shops watched by sullen Palestinian merchants with few customers.
Florence Welborn, a tourist from Lubbock, Texas, said belief was stronger than fear.
"I think if you're not a believer, you should stay away," she said. "If you're a believer, you don't fear. A prophecy is being fulfilled."
In his speech, Mr. Arafat said the "cement checkpoints and the aggressor's oppressive guns have prevented my participation with you at our annual celebrations on this holy occasion."
This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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