Beth­le­hem cel­e­brates, Europe fear­ful

Kuwait Times - - FRONT PAGE -

Pil­grims gath­ered in Beth­le­hem yes­ter­day for Christ­mas Eve as Euro­peans worked up some hol­i­day spirit de­spite tight se­cu­rity in the shadow of the Ber­lin mar­ket at­tack. Dozens of Pales­tini­ans and tourists flocked to Beth­le­hem’s Manger Square near the Church of the Na­tiv­ity, where cel­e­bra­tions cul­mi­nated with a mid­night mass at the site where Chris­tians be­lieve Je­sus (PBUH) was born.

Some snapped self­ies near the square’s gi­ant Christ­mas tree and watched the an­nual Scouts pa­rade in the city, a short drive from Jerusalem in the Is­raeli-oc­cu­pied West Bank. “This is Christ’s land, the land of peace,” said Ramzi Abu Khalil, who was wear­ing a red Santa hat. “We take pride in him. All Chris­tians should come to­day to Beth­le­hem. This is a holy day for us and a day of pil­grim­age.”

Vi­o­lence put a damper on cel­e­bra­tions in Beth­le­hem last year, as a wave of knife, gun and car-ram­ming at­tacks re­duced sharply the num­ber of Christ­mas visi­tors. The un­rest has sub­sided in re­cent months and, with ma­jor Beth­le­hem ho­tels booked up, many in the city were op­ti­mistic this year’s hol­i­day sea­son would bring more visi­tors.

In Europe, many pre­par­ing to cel­e­brate were still reel­ing from this week’s truck at­tack on the Ber­lin Christ­mas mar­ket. Hun­dreds of in­ves­ti­ga­tors were work­ing through the hol­i­day sea­son hunt­ing pos­si­ble ac­com­plices to Tu­nisian Anis Amri, who was killed Fri­day in a shootout with Ital­ian po­lice near Mi­lan. Amri, 24, is be­lieved to have hi­jacked a truck and used it to mow down hol­i­day rev­el­ers at the mar­ket on Mon­day, killing 12 peo­ple in an at­tack claimed by the Is­lamic State (IS) group. Tu­nisia said yes­ter­day it had ar­rested three men sus­pected of links with Amri, in­clud­ing his nephew.

Lo­cals and tourists in Ber­lin vis­ited the Christ­mas mar­ket tar­geted in the at­tack, and many took a mo­ment to qui­etly light a can­dle or lay flow­ers for the vic­tims. “It’s re­ally nice there are so many peo­ple here and it’s still open,” said Mar­i­anne Weile, 56, from Copen­hagen. “So even though you are re­ally sad about what hap­pened you can still keep Christ­mas. It’s not like this crazy guy ru­ined it for ev­ery­body.”

Se­cu­rity was tight else­where in Europe for the hol­i­days, in­clud­ing at Mi­lan’s cathe­dral, where po­lice were out in force and con­crete bar­ri­cades had been erected around the Piazza del Duomo, where a Christ­mas mar­ket is held. In France, 91,000 po­lice, gen­darmes and sol­diers had been de­ployed to guard public spa­ces in­clud­ing churches and mar­kets. In the north­ern city of Lille, con­crete blocks had been laid in ar­eas around the city to pre­vent ve­hi­cle at­tacks, prompt­ing 62-yearold Michelle to ask: “How far are we go­ing to go?”

De­spite the se­cu­rity fears, many were brav­ing win­ter tem­per­a­tures to take part in tra­di­tional mar­kets and other fes­tiv­i­ties. Among them some 30 hardy Slo­vaks par­tic­i­pated in a win­ter swim at Bratislava’s Zlate Piesky lake, some drink­ing beer in the nearly freezing wa­ter. In Lon­don, meat-lovers con­verged on Smith­field Mar­ket for the tra­di­tional Christ­mas Eve auction at butcher Harts, wav­ing ban­knotes in the air as they bid on tur­keys, pork cuts and rump steaks.

Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May used her first Christ­mas mes­sage to urge Bri­tain to come to­gether in 2017 af­ter a year of bitter di­vi­sions ex­posed by the Brexit ref­er­en­dum. As fam­i­lies gath­ered for Christ­mas, May said “com­ing to­gether is also im­por­tant for us as a coun­try.” Chris­tians in Syria’s Aleppo were look­ing for­ward to cel­e­bra­tions af­ter Pres­i­dent Bashar AlAs­sad’s forces re­took full con­trol of the city fol­low­ing a rebel with­drawal this week.

Mem­bers of Aleppo’s Catholic mi­nor­ity have been pre­par­ing for the first Christ­mas mass in five years at the Saint Elias Cathe­dral in the Old City. The famed cathe­dral’s roof col­lapsed years ago un­der a salvo of rocket fire, but this week mem­bers of the com­mu­nity were clear­ing out de­bris to pre­pare for the ser­vice. “All our me­mories are here - this is where we cel­e­brated all our feast days, our joys,” said Bashir Badawi, rum­mag­ing through rub­ble for wood and scrap metal to make a crude Na­tiv­ity scene. “We want to trans­form all this de­struc­tion into some­thing beau­ti­ful.”

In Bartalla near the Iraqi city of Mo­sul, Chris­tians were also hold­ing a ser­vice for the first time since their town was re­cap­tured from IS. The ji­hadists de­stroyed crosses at the Mar Shi­moni church in Bartalla and set it alight, but vol­un­teers worked for days to ready it for the first ser­vice in more than two and a half years. “We want to de­liver the mes­sage that we are stay­ing in this coun­try and that these are our roots and our ori­gins,” Fa­ther Yaqub Saadi, the church’s priest, told AFP.

In the mostly Catholic Philippines, au­thor­i­ties be­gan evac­u­at­ing thou­sands of peo­ple and shut down dozens of ports as a strong ty­phoon threat­ened to wal­lop the coun­try’s east coast on Christ­mas Day. Sea­far­ing ves­sels in the area were or­dered to stay at port, while one air­line can­celled 18 Christ­mas Day flights. “It’s sad that I could not join my par­ents for Christ­mas,” tech­ni­cian Rea­gan Su­mukit told AFP as the coast­guard shut down the port of Tabaco. Pope Fran­cis, the leader of the of the world’s 1.2 bil­lion Catholics, was to de­liver his tra­di­tional “Urbi et Orbi” (To the City and The World) Christ­mas mes­sage from the bal­cony of Saint Peter’s Basil­ica to­day. — AFP

KUWAIT: Kuwaiti priest Em­manuel Gharib, head of the Na­tional Evangelical Church, leads Christ­mas Mass at the church in Kuwait City yes­ter­day. There are ap­prox­i­mately 200 Chris­tian Kuwaitis in the state, in ad­di­tion to a large ex­pa­tri­ate Chris­tian com­mu­nity, mostly from south­east Asia. — Photo by Yasser Al-Zayyat

BETH­LE­HEM: Pales­tini­ans at­tend a per­for­mance by Chris­tian scouts at Manger Square out­side the Church of Na­tiv­ity dur­ing Christ­mas cel­e­bra­tions in this city in the Is­raeli-oc­cu­pied West Bank yes­ter­day.— AFP

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