- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 26, 2001

JERUSALEM Israeli officials from the president to the chief rabbi criticized Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for his decision to prevent Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat from attending Christmas Eve services in Bethlehem.
The action, they said, had served to bring a flood of international sympathy to the Palestinian Authority president who, only days before, had been the focus of international reproach for his failure to curb terror.
They also complained that Mr. Sharon had tarnished Israel's proud claim over the years that it permits free access to members of all religions to the country's holy places.
Services went ahead without Mr. Arafat yesterday in Bethlehem, where Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah conducted morning Mass. About 300 people gathered for an afternoon procession through nearby Shepherds' Field in the mostly Christian town of Beit Sahour, where biblical tradition says the herders watching their sheep were awestruck by news of the Christ child's birth.
"In spite of the tanks, the closure and the bombardment that your town Bethlehem has faced, I say to you all merry Christmas and wish you a happy new year," Patriarch Sabbah told his listeners.
But the previous evening's ceremonies were overwhelmed by politics, with posters of Mr. Arafat outnumbering the Christmas decorations in Manger Square.
Buoyed by international criticism of the decision to bar him, Mr. Arafat told the Bethlehem celebrants in a televised interview: "The Israeli tanks, the barriers and the rifles of the oppressors have prevented me from sharing with you our annual celebration on this divine and blessed occasion.
"There will never be any security for any worshipper in the shadow of a tank," he added.
One of the most surprising criticisms of Mr. Sharon's decision came from President Moshe Katsav, who called on the prime minister on Monday to let Mr. Arafat travel to Bethlehem for Christmas Eve as he has done for the past five years.
Israeli presidents usually do not interfere in day-to-day political issues. Furthermore, Mr. Katsav is a member of Mr. Sharon's own Likud bloc.
Chief Rabbi Israel Lau also condemned the ban, saying yesterday he had always stressed to foreign audiences that Israel provides free access to the holy places for people of all religions.
"There are many sanctions that could be used [against Arafat], but religion should not be one of them," he said. The fact that Mr. Arafat is a Muslim seeking to attend a Christian service made little difference, he said.
The leader of the conservative National Religious Party, Shaul Yahalom, called the ban on Mr. Arafat "a mistake."
"There's no point in turning the whole Christian world against Israel," said Mr. Yahalom, normally a fierce critic of the Palestinian leader.
Mr. Sharon's spokesman, Raanan Gissin, said Mr. Arafat would have been permitted to attend the Mass if he had first arrested two suspected murderers of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi and two other men accused of sending them on their mission. All four, he said, reside in Ramallah at locations known to the Palestinian Authority.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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