Top Roman Catholic cleric in Holy Land prays for Mideast peace

By Dalia Nammari, AP
Thursday, December 24, 2009

Top Roman Catholic in Holy Land prays for peace

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.

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.

“We don’t have a shortage of food, we don’t need aid,” he added. “All we want is peace, and that is the wish that still has not been answered.”

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 fractions and hostilities that have made peace impossible.

“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 Palestinian militants carried out a series of suicide bombings that killed dozens of Israelis. But Palestinians see it as a land grab because its route juts into the West Bank in various places, putting that land on the “Israeli” side of the enclosure.

Thousands of people were already milling around Manger Square when Twal arrived: tourists from all over the world, locals hawking food at stalls, and Palestinian scouts decked out in kilts and playing bagpipes, as they do each Christmas.

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.

“They are threatening us, (saying) ‘We will again attack you and will not let you out of homes, we will burn you inside this time,’” he said.

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. And 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. And some farmers begged authorities clearing a 5-mile (8-kilometer) area to allow them to stay to guard their livestock.

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