No peace and joy this year in birthplace of Christendom

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The Latin Patriarch, Monsignor Michel Sabbah, will enter the birthplace of Christianity tonight in a procession from Jerusalem, a few miles to the north, and conduct Midnight Mass. To reach Bethlehem, he will have to pass under the guns of Israeli soldiers deployed outside Rachel's Tomb, and through their reinforced-concrete barriers, which keep the Palestinian inhabitants and their economy under a chronic state of siege.

These are grim times for Israel and the Palestinians. After some 15 months of intifada violence, Bethlehem is facing a joyless Christmas.

The coloured lights are strung perfunctorily across Manger Square. A towering cypress outside the empty Palace Hotel fills in for the Christmas tree that Finnish Christians used to send every year. The locals are celebrating alone, if at all. Foreign pilgrims, fearing for their lives, are staying at home.

The Palestinian governor of Bethlehem, Mohammed al-Madani, summoned leaders of the local Christian community last week and asked them to celebrate Christmas as usual. It would, he said, send a message to the world that life goes on in the town where Jesus was born. The word was received and understood.

"This year is worse than any we have ever known. People have no income, no money to buy presents," said Faize Ayyad, a Roman Catholic nun at the sixth-century Church of the Nativity, which is scarred with 13 bullet holes. They are grim reminders of a week of fighting following the assassination in October of the Israeli Tourism minister, Rehavam Ze'evi.

The nuns have concentrated this year on raising funds to buy food for needy families. Last year, they distributed 700 food packages. This year the number of needy will be three times larger. Amjad Sobara, a priest collecting toys for Bethlehem children, said: "This is the worst Christmas of my life."

In the neighbouring hill town of Beit Jala, Khader Abu Abbara, an official of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, scorned the governor's request. "We cannot celebrate," he said in a Greek Orthodox social club only recently repaired after Israeli soldiers took it over as a base. "There have been 850 Palestinian martyrs. We cannot pretend to be happy."

Bethlehem's Catholic mayor, Hanna Nasser, added with an air of sad defiance: "We shall celebrate Christmas according to our tradition, but what will be missing is peace and the smiles on the faces of our children. The mood this year is very gloomy. There is no joy."

His city, which has been under Palestinian self-rule for the past six years, has 30,000 Arab residents; 65 per cent of them Muslim, 35 per cent Christian. Barely a decade ago, the Christians formed a majority, but hundreds of educated, middle-class families have emigrated to the Americas and Australia since the first intifada erupted in December 1987. They have had enough of the interminable conflict.

Despite being a Muslim, the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, would like to attend the mass tonight, if the Israelis would let him. For the first time since 1995, when the city was turned over to Palestinian control, the Israeli government decided yesterday to bar Mr Arafat from attending the mass on the grounds that he had not done enough to stop terror attacks against Israel.

Manger Square, refurbished two years ago for the millennium and a papal visit, is decorated but not the winding Manger Street approach road. It is still ravaged by the legacy of Israeli tanks and Israeli-Palestinian gunfights.

The Paradise Hotel, one of its landmarks, which once boasted among its regulars the grandees of Mr Arafat's Palestinian Authority, is a burnt-out shell. "You forget," reflected Basil Abueta, the hotel's owner, "that just two years ago even Israelis felt comfortable coming to Bethlehem. It was easy for them to come and celebrate with us. I hope things are going to end soon. Otherwise, it will be hell for everybody living in this land."

Local Arab Christians will sing carols in the square on Christmas Eve, but not the American, European and African choirs that usually visit. "We can't even invite foreigners," Mayor Nasser explained.

All 30 of Bethlehem's hotels and guest houses are closed. So are 85 of the 86 restaurants and cafés in the town. The souvenir shops, with their olive-wood Last Suppers and mother-of-pearl Nativity tableaux, are shuttered. Their staff, like more than 70 per cent of Bethlehem's labour force, have lost their jobs.

Jerusalem and the Israeli Arab town of Nazareth are suffering too. According to the Israeli Tourism Ministry, the number of foreign visitors this month is down 20 per cent on December 2000, which itself was a lean year. The decline has accelerated since the 11 September attacks on America.

Notre Dame, the Vatican's huge and ornate pilgrim centre outside the Old City walls in Jerusalem, closed its 270-bed hotel in September. Father Aldo Tolotto, its Italian supervisor, lamented: "Many of our friends and group leaders say they have tried to gather groups, but at the last moment everybody cancelled. People are afraid to come here."

The Jerusalem International YMCA last week had 22 guests in its hotel's 110 beds, though room rates have been slashed from $120 (£85) a night to $60. Two years ago, occupancy was 70-85 per cent.

"No groups are booked for Christmas," said Rizek Abusharr, the YMCA's director general and an Israeli Arab elder of the Church of Scotland. "A handful of individuals are coming out of solidarity with us. That's all."

The 15 months of mayhem have hit Christian seminaries too. The Church of Sweden's theological institute, which has flourished in Jerusalem for half a century, cancelled all study programmes last week for 2002.

In September, a Hamas suicide bomber blew himself up 100 metres from the institute's 19th-century home on the Street of the Prophets. "After that," the deputy director, Tina Blomquist, explained, "we saw no chance of filling our courses. Our Scandinavian students didn't want to come."

Back in Bethlehem, the 30,000 residents can only pray for better times they cannot yet see. "As everyone knows," said Brother Vincent Malham, vice-chancellor of the local Catholic university, "Arafat has dug himself into a hole. He can't please either side, either the extremists here or the Israelis. So there is this fear of what will happen next.

"It's even more serious this Christmas than it was last, and I thought that was as bad as it could get."