Bethlehem Christmas celebrations kick off under shadow of Trump tensions
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Bethlehem Christmas celebrations kick off under shadow of Trump tensions

As Christians gather to mark birth of Jesus, demonstrations and clashes keep some tourists away

Roman Catholic deacons and clergymen walk in a procession prior to Christmas eve at the Church of the Nativity compound in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on December 24, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / Musa AL SHAER)
Roman Catholic deacons and clergymen walk in a procession prior to Christmas eve at the Church of the Nativity compound in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on December 24, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / Musa AL SHAER)

BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Palestinian scouts played drums and bagpipes as Christmas celebrations began in Bethlehem on Sunday, but many tourists stayed away with tensions still simmering following Washington’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

The controversial announcement by US President Donald Trump earlier this month unleashed demonstrations and clashes, including in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, where Christians will mark the birth of Jesus in a midnight mass.

At Bethlehem’s Manger Square, dozens of Palestinians and tourists gathered excitedly in the cold near a huge nativity scene and Christmas tree to watch the annual scout parade.

Palestinian Christian scouts perform at the Manger Square outside the Church of the Nativity as people gather for Christmas celebrations in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, on December 24, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / HAZEM BADER)

They took pictures as scouts, some playing bagpipes, marched through the square towards the Church of the Nativity, built over the spot where tradition says Mary gave birth to Jesus.

Celebrations were to culminate at the church later on Sunday with midnight mass.

The square is usually thronging with tourists on Christmas Eve, but clashes between Palestinian protesters and the Israeli army in the past weeks have kept people away this year.

Nahil Banura, a Christian woman from Beit Sahur, a town near Bethlehem, said Trump’s decision had made the run-up to Christmas “miserable.”

A Palestinian protester dressed in a Santa Clause outfit confronts an Israeli border guard during a demonstration at the main entrance of the West Bank city of Bethlehem on December 23, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / Musa AL SHAER)

“People are only going out to vent,” said the 67-year-old, whose granddaughter wore a Santa Claus hat and clutched a pink balloon.

Perhaps as few as 50,000 Palestinian Christians make up just around two percent of the predominantly Muslim population of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Extra police

Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, has said “dozens” of foreign visitors had canceled their Christmas trips after Trump’s announcement.

But Israel’s Tourism Ministry has said Christmas preparations have not been affected, and it expects a 20 percent increase in the number of Christian pilgrims this year compared with 2016.

Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa (C), Apostolic Administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, gestures to bless people as he walks past a giant Christmas tree during a procession at the Church of the Nativity compound in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on December 24, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / Musa AL SHAER)

The ministry said it would operate a free shuttle service for the short distance between Jerusalem and Bethlehem for mass.

An Israeli police spokesman said that extra units would be deployed in Jerusalem and at the crossings to Bethlehem to ease the travel and access for the “thousands of tourists and visitors.”

In an address December 6 from the White House, Trump defied worldwide warnings and insisted that after repeated failures to achieve peace, a new approach was long overdue. He described his decision to recognize Jerusalem as the seat of Israel’s government as merely based on reality.

The move was hailed by Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and by leaders across much of the Israeli political spectrum, but derided by the Palestinians and wider Arab and Muslim world. Trump stressed that he was not specifying the boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in the city, and called for no change in the status quo at the city’s holy sites.

Israel took control East Jerusalem in the 1967’s Six Day War and later annexed it, in a move never recognized by the international community.

Palestinians view Jerusalem as the capital of their future state, and interpreted Trump’s statement as rejecting their right to a capital in East Jerusalem, although the Americans deny this.

A man dressed as Santa Claus waves to people as he rides in the sidecar of a motorcycle, to attend Christmas eve celebrations in the West Bank city of Bethlehem December 24, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / HAZEM BADER)

In a statement before Christmas, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said Trump’s announcement “encouraged the illegal disconnection between the holy cities of Bethlehem and Jerusalem, both separated for the first time in over 2,000 years of Christianity.”

Abbas called on “world Christians to listen to the true voices of the indigenous Christians from the Holy Land… that strongly rejected the US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.”

“They are the descendants of the first followers of Jesus Christ and an integral part of the Palestinian people,” Abbas said, calling the local Christian community “an inherent part of our societies.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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