Israelis, Palestinians to celebrate Xmas 2007 in peaceDecember 19th, 2007 - 2:27 pm ICT by admin
Tel Aviv, Dec.19 (ANI): Israel and holy sites in the West Bank are experiencing a renewed surge of tourism this year, just in time for Christmas.
Bethlehem, where the Church of Nativity is located and the place in which Christians believe Jesus was born, is particularly busy with Christmas preparations this year.
The towns mayor, Victor Batarseh, expects to welcome 65,000 tourists this Christmas, approximately four times the number that came in Christmas 2005.
At a press conference Tuesday in Jerusalem, the Director-General of the Israeli Ministry of Tourism Shaul Tzemach, said that 500,000 Christian tourists made a pilgrimage to Israel in 2007 and 340,000 tourists traveled to Bethlehem.
Since its creation, Israel has provided freedom of religion for Christians, as well as for Muslims, Jews and other faiths, that have holy sites within.
For the 2007 Christmas season, the Ministry of Tourism along with the Israeli Police and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have coordinated their efforts with the Palestinian Ministry for Tourism as well as Palestinian organizations in the private sector to ensure the safe passage of Christian pilgrims from Jerusalem into Bethlehem.
Israel Ministry of Tourism staff will be manning the Rachel crossing into Bethlehem on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, twenty-four hours a day, as will staff from the IDFs District Coordination Office (DCO) in the Palestinian Territories. The Ministry will also provide a bus shuttle every 30 minutes from the Mar Elias Monastery just south of Jerusalem to the Church of the Nativity on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
Israeli Tourism Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch said that, “Tourism cooperation is in the joint economic interests of both Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The many pilgrims who are currently visiting create a bridge for cooperation, understanding and peace between the peoples. We will work together in order to assure full freedom of religion.”
Lt. Col. Kamil Wahabee of the IDFs DCO Unit said a number of restrictions inside the West Bank have been eased for the holiday season. He also said that the government has lifted a general prohibition on Israeli civilians visiting the West Bank without a permit; a gesture intended to allow Israeli Arabs to visit family in the West Bank over the holiday season.
Thousands of entry permits have also been granted to Palestinian Christians wishing to visit family in Israel over Christmas. Eight thousand permits have been granted to residents of Bethlehem alone, with four thousand permits granted to its Muslim residents. Hundreds more permits have been distributed in other cities for the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha, or Sacrifice Feast, which will be celebrated today.
Five hundred permits were requested by Christians from Gaza to visit Israel, Bethlehem and the West Bank, all of which were granted.
Aharonovitch and Nazareth Mayor Ramez Jaraisy will host the traditional reception for leaders of Israel’s Christian communities on Christmas Eve at the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth. Local Jewish, Christian and Muslim mayors will also be in attendance.
Former British Prime Minister and International Quartet envoy, Tony Blair, spent the night in Bethlehem last Tuesday to help revive tourism in the town and demonstrate that it is a secure travel destination.
Im trying to illustrate thatIt [Bethlehem] is a safe and good place to come and visit, Blair said.
In addition to all of the Christmas preparations, the Jerusalem municipality will distribute Christmas trees on Dec. 20, as it does every year.
This Christmas will also witness the largest event in Manger Square, Bethlehem since 1999. A choir comprised of three church groups from the U.S., together with Israeli and Palestinian musicians, will give performances in Amman, Jordan; Nazareth; and Jerusalem.
The 160-voice choir will then give a climactic performance on Christmas Eve in Manger Square.
One of the organizers of the tour, Rev. Sam Morris, senior pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Columbus, Mississippi said, While the music is the traditional Christmas music of Handel and John Rutter, the presence of the singers, orchestra and soloists transcends the differences existing among peoples of the world, and unites us in friendship and hope in this deeply symbolic season.
Despite these positive developments, the situation for Christians under the Palestinian Authority remains poor. The Palestinian Christian community today is one-and-a-half percent of the West Bank and Gaza population, but back in 1948 comprised a full 15 percent.
Bethlehem in particular has seen a dramatic decline in its Christian population. Of Bethlehems 30,000 residents, less than 20 percent are Christian. In 1948 though, more than 85 percent of the towns inhabitants were Christian.
During the course of 2007, there has been a notable rise in anti-Christian attacks, especially in the Gaza Strip since Hamas took over the territory.
Terrorist activity in the Bethlehem district is still a serious problem, accounting for the IDFs ongoing operations in the area. In 2007 alone, there have been numerous incidents involving terrorists in the Bethlehem region.
As demonstrated by its Christmas preparations, religious freedom is a central aspect of Israeli society. Israels Declaration of Independence guarantees freedom of religion within the state and equality of citizens, whatever their religion.
The diversity of religions practiced in Israel today also testifies to the countrys open and tolerant attitude towards religions other than Judaism. According to the Israel Central bureau of Statistics, in 2006, 16.4 percent of the population was Muslim, 1.6 percent was Druze and 2 percent was Christian. (ANI)
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