Bethlehem cancels Christmas amid riots and gunfire

Were the three wise men to set off across the Middle East in pursuit of their star today - assuming they could distinguish it from Israeli military flares and satellites that hang in the sky - they would be in for a severe disappointment.

Were the three wise men to set off across the Middle East in pursuit of their star today - assuming they could distinguish it from Israeli military flares and satellites that hang in the sky - they would be in for a severe disappointment.

They would arrive to find that, far from marking the 2,000th anniversary of Christ's birth with fabulous celebrations, wild bell-ringing and grand church services broadcast live on television, Bethlehem had cancelled Christmas.

After two months of violence, city officials have called off their plans for lavish millennium-year festivities, including more than a dozen concerts in Manger Square, because of the present crisis. The Christmas lights will not be switched on. At best, there will be modest services, mostly attended by the local Christian Arabs.

The curtailment was inevitable. Far from lying still beneath a deep and dreamless sleep, the town has been at the centre of nightly battles and daily riots. Israeli troops blockade the entrances. The renowned Paradise Hotel, a favourite with pilgrims, has been shelled twice by the Israelis. The shepherds watching their flocks in the fields by night would, today, genuinely be "sorely afraid". In the past few weeks, Israeli machine-gun bullets and grenades have been pounding the buildings in the street opposite the presumed site of their pasture.

Israeli tank shells have also been crashing into a suburb on the town's north-western edge, where Palestinian gunmen have been blasting away across a valley at Jewish homes built on occupied land on the edge of nearby Jerusalem. Pilgrims usually flock to Bethlehem at this time of year - just as they did nine months ago when Pope John Paul II held Mass in the central square. But now there are none.

In the saddest touch of all, there is even said to be a plan that the huge Christmas tree - usually seen live on television on Christmas Day - be decorated not with lights and streamers, but pictures of the 250 Palestinians and more who have died in the intifada.

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