Tourists flock to Bethlehem
as city basks in Christmas spotlight
Bethlehem marked Christmas on Thursday with crowds of tourists joining local Palestinian Christians in Jesus’ traditional birthplace, as the West Bank town basked in its once-a-year appearance in the world spotlight.
The mood was upbeat, with hotel rooms fully booked and merchants reporting good business for the first time in years, as a long period of
Israeli-Palestinian violence that dampened moods and tourism seemed to be easing.
Light rain fell on Bethlehem on Christmas morning. Crowds of worshippers and tourists carrying umbrellas walked briskly across the plaza in front of the Church of the Nativity, built atop the grotto where Jesus is believed to have been born.
Inside the dimly lit Crusader-era church, hundreds of people lined up five abreast between two rows of columns on one side, quietly waiting their turn to descend a few stone steps to the grotto.
Most of the people in the ancient church on Christmas morning were Asian, with a few Europeans and Americans joining them.
After ducking through the low entrance into the church, Wayne Shandera, 57, a physician from Houston, Texas, looked awed by the massive presence of the old stone church. „You feel in continuity with all the pilgrims through the ages who have been here,” he said.
For Julie Saad, 55, from Denver, Colorado, the Church of the Nativity was part of a larger feeling. „Just being in the land where Jesus walked is an incredible spiritual experience,” she said.
At the nearby Church of St. Catherine, the recently installed Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal, conducted his first Christmas morning service in his new role. For the Midnight Mass a few hours earlier, the church was filled on Christmas Eve with dignitaries, including Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and tourists who obtained tickets and passed through security checks.
Christmas morning services were more relaxed. Most of the congregants were local Palestinians, with some tourists standing in the back, listening to the Arabic-language liturgy.
The outbreak of the Palestinian uprising against Israel in late 2000 and the fighting that followed clouded Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem for years, battering the tourism industry that is the city’s lifeline.
Although holiday tourism numbers this year were still off from the tens of thousands who visited in the peak years of the late 1990s and the 2000
millennium, they were up from recent years, when just a few thousand visitors trickled in. Bethlehem officials said that over the course of the year, more than 1 million tourists visited their town, providing a much-needed boost to the local economy.
Still, all is not well in Bethlehem, despite the diminished violence and the relaunch of peace talks last year between Israel and the government of Abbas.
Bethlehem remains surrounded on three sides by a barrier of towering concrete slabs and electronic fences that Israel has erected. Israeli says the barrier is meant to keep out suicide attackers, but because it dips inside the West Bank, Palestinians see it as a thinly disguised land grab that strangles their economy.
Emigration, meanwhile, has slashed the town’s Christian population to an estimated 35 to 50 percent of its 40,000 people, down from 90 percent in the 1950s.
The festivities in the West Bank town contrasted sharply with the mood in
Hamas-run Gaza, 45 miles away. Militants there have been bombarding nearby Israeli communities with rockets and mortars since a truce expired a week ago, waiting to see whether Israel would act on its frequent threat to pummel them militarily.
The tiny Christian community in Gaza – 400 out of a total population of 1.4 million, called off its midnight Mass to protest Israel’s blockade, imposed after the militant Islamic Hamas overran the territory last year and further tightened last month, when Gaza militants resumed rocket fire.
source> http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1050036.html after an Associated Press article
Christmas 2008 Message from Partriarchs
and Church Leaders in Jerusalem
Worldwide Faith News
December 18, 2008
Dear Sisters & Brothers
As we prepare to celebrate Christmas there seems to be even more, darkness, conflict and despair in the world around us. That means for us, as Christians, we must think even more carefully and deeply about Jesus– the baby born in Bethlehem’s stable.
Many people are afraid of the dark whether it be the absence of light around them or fear of the unknown in their personal lives or the world at large.
Despite all this we need to think and mediate about Jesus ?”a light that shines in the dark, a light that darkness could not overpower.” St. John ch. 1 v. 5
St. John’s Gospel goes on to remind us of the facts of Jesus’ birth „That he was born into a world which did not recognize him and a people that did not receive him.” St. John Ch.1 vs 10 & 11
So, as we approach another Christmas we must show the world around us that Jesus is a light in the dark which never goes out, a burning light which takes the terror from the night and moreover, a light on which we should fix our eyes not least when the clouds appear to be gathering around us..
Just as the baby in the stable is the focal point of our Christmas celebrations, so we must affirm and witness to the fact that Jesus is the light which shines out from our personal and corporate lives at all times.
Again and again we need to ask ourselves „What would Jesus do, what would Jesus say”. Then, our thoughts and ideas of His actions and words must be translated into the daily life of our community ? particularly in this Holy Land.
Similarly, we have to convince the world’s political leaders that the true peace will only come on earth when we seek God’s will for his people not least through the words and actions of Jesus. Nor must we belittle the fact, affirmed in St. John’s Gospel, that to all who accept Jesus, He gives power to become the Children of God.
This means we must stand alongside all who suffer around us: the hungry, the homeless, the unemployed and the bereaved since Jesus tells us that when we help others we are doing it to Him as thought He were suffering for them.
To stand alongside also involves us in action. We need the light of Christ to shine on this Land to enable us to work more realistically for a two state solution which would end the burden of restrictions arising out of Occupation.
(So we pray for the President Elect of the USA that he and other world leaders may see the urgent need for peace in the Middle East and not least in this Land).
We need also to see the situation in which many are suffering in Gaza in the light of Christ and make a determined effort to bring them urgent relief.
Moreover, we must never forget our duty to point our children and young people to the light of Christ assuring them that, through Jesus we all have hope for a better world.
Then we would greet our Sisters and Brothers across the world not least the thousands who have visited this Holy Land recently. It is important to recall that you are walking in the footsteps of Jesus and when you pause to see the plight of many of your fellow Christians that you respond as you believe He would.
We are conscious of all who suffer across the world but for all we believe the only way forward is to see people and situations in „The light of Christ”.
Be assured of our good wishes and prayers for all of you as Christmas approaches and may God’s blessing be on your homes and families.
Walk in the light and the light will illumine your path,
Walk in the truth and the truth will set you free,
Walk in the way of peace and you will have, through Christ,
the peace which passes understanding.
(Prayers of the Way: by John Johansen-berg).
Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in Jerusalem
H.B. Patriarch Theophilos III Greek Orthodox Church
H.B. Patriarch Fouad Twal Roman Catholic Church
H.B. Patriarch Torkom Manooghian Armenian Orthodox Church
Fr. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, ofm Custos of the Holy Land
Archbishop Anba Abraham Coptic Orthodox Church
Archbishop Swerios Malki Murad Syrian Orthodox Church
Archbishop Abouna Mathias Ethiopian Orthodox Church
Archbishop Paul Sayyah The Maronite Church
Archbishop Youssef Jules Zreyi The Greek Melkite Church
The Rt. Revd. Suhiel Dawani The Anglican Church
The Rt. Revd. Mounib Younan The Lutheran Church
The Rt. Revd. Pierre Malki The Syrian Catholic Church
Fr. Rafael Minassian The Armenian Catholic Church
„Bethlehem Christmas Preparations”
photos byJames Wray – Dec 23, 2008
The Telegraph photos
Catholic Christmas fest images
Christmas celebration photos from around the world
By the Mercy of God
Archbishop of Constantinople, New Rome and Ecumenical Patriarch
To the Plenitude of the Church
Grace, peace and mercy from the Savior Christ, born in Bethlehem
Beloved brethren and children in the Lord,
The great and sacred day of Christmas has dawned, the metropolis and mother of all feasts, inviting each of us to spiritual uplifting and encounter with the Ancient of Days, who became an infant for us.
As St. John of Damascus underlines: „By the grace of God the Father, the only begotten Son and divine Word of God, who is in the bosom of the Father, consubstantial with the Father and the Holy Spirit, the pre-eternal and perfect God, who is without beginning, condescends to us as His servants, becoming fully human and achieves that which is newer than new, the only new thing under the sun.” (On the Orthodox Faith) This incarnation of the Son of God is not merely symbolical, like the other incarnations of the numerous gods in mythology; it is reality, a truly new reality, the only new thing under the sun, which occurred at a specific historical moment in the reign of the Emperor Octavian Augustus some 746 years (according to new astronomical data) since the establishment of Rome, in the midst of a specific people, from the house and line of David (Luke 2.4), in a specific place, namely Bethlehem of Judaea, with a very specific purpose: „He became human in order that we might become divine,” in accordance with the succinct expression of Athanasius the Great. (On the Divine Incarnation 54)
The event of incarnation of God’s Word grants us the opportunity to reach the extreme limits of our nature, which are identified neither with the „good and beautiful” of the ancient Greeks and the „justice” of the philosophers, nor with the tranquility of Buddhist „nirvana” and the transcendental „fate” or so-called „karma” by means of the reputedly continuous changes in the form of life, nor again with any „harmony” of supposedly contradictory elements of some imaginary „living force” and anything else like these. Rather, it is the ontological transcendence of corruption and death through Christ, our integration into His divine life and glory, and our union by grace through Him with the Father in the Holy Spirit. These are our ultimate limits: personal union with the Trinitarian God! And Christ’s nativity does not promise any vague blessedness or abstract eternity; it places „in our hands” the potential of personal participation in God’s sacred life and love in an endless progression. It grants us the possibility not only „of receiving adoption” (Gal. 4.5) but also of becoming „partakers of divine nature.” (2 Peter 1.4).
Of course, amid the global confusion and crisis of our time, these truths have a strange echo. Most people’s hope, resting on worldly „deities,” is falsified on a daily basis in the most terrible ways. The human person is humiliated and crushed by numbers, machines, computers, stock markets, and diverse flags of vain ideological opportunism. Nature is blasphemed; the environment groans; young people despair and protest against the injustice of the present and the uncertainty of the future. „Darkness, clouds, storms and noise” (Deut. 4.11) prevail in our world, giving the impression that even the light of hope that dawns in Bethlehem is threatened with extinction and the angelic hymn of universal joy – „Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will to all people” (Luke 2.14) – is in danger of being overcome. Nevertheless, the Church calls everyone to sober attention, re-evaluation of priorities in life, and pursuit of divine traces and value in every other person of respect toward the image of God. Indeed, the Church will not cease to proclaim – with all the strength acquired by its two millennia of experience – that the child that lies in the manger of Bethlehem is „the hope of all ends of the earth,” the Word and purpose of life, redemption sent by God to His people, namely to the whole world.
We share this good news with much love from the martyric Throne of the Great Church of Christ in Constantinople, proclaiming it to all children of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and to every person that thirsts for Christ, invoking upon all of you the mercy, peace and grace of God, together with the saving gift of the only-begotten Son of God, who came down from the heavens – for us and for our salvation – and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, becoming human. To Him belong the glory, power, honor and worship, together with the Father and the Holy Spirit, to the ages.
At the Phanar, Christmas 2008
Fervent supplicant to God for all
Bartholomew, Archbishop of Constantinople, New Rome and Ecumenical Patriarch
Phanar / Constantinople- greek orthodox
Pakistan – catholic
Patriarch Maxim of Bulgaria – Sofia
Russia – orthodox
Palestina – Melkite Greek Catholic
Baghdad – catholic
India – catholic