Roman Catholic cleric in Holy Land prays for Mideast peace; Christmas gloom elsewhere too

By Dalia Nammari, AP
Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas gloom, prayers for peace in Holy Land

BETHLEHEM, West Bank — The top Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land delivered Christmas wishes Thursday for peace in the Middle East — and prayed for the day when Palestinians would no longer be confined by Israeli barriers.

There was more Christmas gloom than cheer elsewhere, too.

Thousands of families in the central Philippines were spending Christmas Eve in shelters while the lava-spilling Mayon volcano threatened their homes. And in Pakistan, no decorations brightened the tent camp sheltering Christians left homeless by the worst violence against minorities in the country this year.

Sectarian violence was weighing heavily on Iraqi Christians as well. Christmas is bumping into the majority Shiite Muslims’ most mournful ceremony this year, forcing Iraqi Christians to keep their celebrations under tighter wraps than usual.

On Thursday, explosions killed at least 26 people across Iraq, most of them Shiite pilgrims taking part in a holy mourning ceremony, raising fears of further sectarian attacks at the approach of the Ashoura holiday.

Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal began Christmas celebrations with an annual procession from Jerusalem to the West Bank town of Bethlehem, Jesus’ traditional birthplace.

“The wish that we most want, we most hope for, is not coming. We want peace,” Twal said after he passed into Bethlehem.

Twal and his convoy of dozens of vehicles entered the Palestinian territory through a massive steel gate in Israel’s heavily guarded West Bank separation barrier, escorted by Israeli soldiers and police in jeeps.

The barrier and the heavy Israeli security presence was a potent reminder of the frictions and hostilities that have thwarted peace efforts.

“We want freedom of movement, we don’t want walls,” Twal said after passing through the barrier. “We don’t want separation fences. We hope that things will become more normal for us.”

Israel began building the barrier of towering concrete slabs and electronic fences after a wave of deadly Palestinian suicide bombings. But Palestinians see it as a land grab because its route juts into the West Bank, putting that land on the “Israeli” side of the enclosure.

In a reminder that the threat of violence is always present, an Israeli man was killed in the West Bank hours later in what appeared to be an attack by Palestinian gunmen. Israel Radio identified the man as a resident of a nearby settlement, and a Palestinian faction took responsibility for the shooting in an e-mail sent to journalists.

Thousands of people were milling around Manger Square: tourists from all over the world, locals hawking food and trinkets and Palestinian scouts in kilts and playing bagpipes, as they do each Christmas.

Hanna Pioli, 23, and her sister Katherine, 25, were spending the holiday in Bethlehem, far from their hometown of Salt Lake City, Utah.

The sisters miss celebrating a “white Christmas” at home, Katherine Pioli said, but think Bethlehem is nonetheless the best place for Christians to spend the holiday. “It’s interesting to observe people having a beautiful religious moment,” Hanna Pioli said.

Balloons of all colors gave an added note of cheer to the festivities.

But there was no cheer at a tent camp 220 miles southwest of Islamabad, Pakistan, erected to house Christians left homeless by a rampage of looting and arson by Muslims in August.

The Christians say they have received cell phone text messages warning them to expect a “special Christmas present.” They’re terrified their tents will be torched or their church services bombed.

“Last year I celebrated Christmas full of joy,” said Irfan Masih, cradling his young son among the canvas shelters and open ditches of the camp. But now “the fear that we may again be attacked is in our hearts.”

In the volcano area in the Philippines, government workers and volunteers tried to keep some 47,000 residents evacuated from their homes entertained with games, movies and concerts.

Dinner packs of noodles, apples, oranges and corned beef were distributed at the shelters for Christmas Eve dinner. Children in one evacuation center gleefully lined up for ice cream. But the evacuation was an especially great burden during the Christmas season in the majority Roman Catholic country. Some farmers begged authorities clearing a 5-mile (8-kilometer) area to allow them to stay to guard their livestock.

Later Thursday, Pope Benedict XVI was to celebrate Christmas Eve Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica two hours earlier than usual to spare the 82-year-old pontiff from such a late night. Benedict was to initiate the evening’s services at nightfall, by lighting a candle in a window after Vatican officials unveil the life-sized Nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square.

On Christmas Day, Benedict will deliver a traditional speech from the basilica’s balcony. On Sunday, he plans to share lunch with the homeless at a soup kitchen near the Vatican.

In Baghdad, minority Christians were to celebrate midnight Mass in daylight for security reasons, and churches were under heavy guard. A bombing this week targeting a 1,200-year-old church in Mosul killed two passers-by, underscoring Iraqi Christians’ concerns.

But this year, the Christians feel an extra need for caution and are toning down the Christmas glitz.

The plastic Santas aren’t selling as well as usual. At least one Catholic archbishop has discouraged Christmas decorations and public merrymaking out of respect for Ashoura, the period of Shiite mourning and self-flagellation.

In Thursday’s attacks, twin explosions first targeted Shiite Muslim pilgrims gathered near a bus station in the central city of Hillah, killing at least 13 and injuring 74 people.

Later, a bomb targeted a funeral procession, killing nine and wounding 33 in Baghdad’s Sadr City, a predominantly Shiite neighborhood. In a southern Baghdad neighborhood, a separate bomb killed four Shiite pilgrims and wounded 10 others.

Ashoura caps a 10-day period of mourning for the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Imam Hussein, killed in 680 A.D. during a battle that sealed the split between Shiites and Sunnis.

“We used to put the Christmas tree with its bright lights close to the window in the entrance of our home,” said Saad Matti, a 51-year-old surgeon and Basra city councilman.

“But this year, we put it away from the window as a kind of respect for the feelings of Shiite Muslims in our neighborhood because of Ashoura,” he said.

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