Oded Balilty  /  AP file
The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Michel Sabbah carries a statue of Baby Jesus down into the grotto, the site where Christians believe Jesus Christ was born, following the Catholic Christmas Midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank town of Bethlehem Dec. 25, 2004.
updated 12/12/2006 4:06:49 PM ET 2006-12-12T21:06:49

Bethlehem's mayor called Monday for the Christian world to support Palestinians in the beleaguered town by visiting Jesus' traditional birthplace this Christmas.

Speaking at a press conference in his office across from the Church of the Nativity, Mayor Victor Batarseh said the town of 30,000 has been hard hit by Israel's West Bank separation barrier, which cuts Bethlehem residents off from jobs, studies, medical facilities and relatives in nearby Jerusalem.

"With the closure of Jerusalem to Palestinians and the limitation of permits granted by the Israeli authorities, unemployment has soared to 65 percent, which simply means that 65 percent of the people of Bethlehem live under the poverty line," he said.

Israel says the wall, which blocks the main entrance to Bethlehem from the north, is necessary to stop Palestinian attacks into Israel. Several Palestinian suicide bombers from Bethlehem have blown themselves up in Jerusalem in recent years. Foreign passport holders are able to cross freely in both directions, but most Palestinians are forbidden to pass through, as are Israelis, including Christian Arab visitors to local shrines.

The drop in local tax revenues resulting from unemployment and the dive in tourism has been exacerbated by a freeze on international aid imposed on the Palestinian government since the radical Islamic Hamas movement rose to power in January elections, the mayor said.

"In light of the prevailing acute financial crisis in which we are living, the municipality couldn't pay the salaries of its employees for more than three months now," Batarseh said. "There will be no new clothes for the employees' children this year, and Santa will not visit them."

There was not much sign of Christmas cheer in Bethlehem on Monday, although the Israeli tourism ministry has hung a banner reading, "Peace be Upon You" underneath one of the armor-plated military watchtowers atop the battleship-gray concrete wall that looms over the town's northern neighborhoods.

Palestinian workmen were stringing a few lights in the shape of reindeer and stars across a downtown street, and some shops had Christmas trees or lights in their windows, while one boasted a life-size nativity scene.

But the streets, shops and cafes were mostly empty, and dozens of taxi drivers idled by the Palestinian side of the wall, waiting for the occasional group of tourists to pass through the turnstiles from Israel-controlled Jerusalem.

"My message this year is addressed to the world in general and to the Christian world in particular, not to forget Bethlehem," Batarseh said. "Contribute in breaking this oppressive siege imposed upon it, through your visits, though pilgrimage to its holy sites."

Before the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising in 2000, Bethlehem drew more than 90,000 pilgrims a month, but only 2,500 foreign visitors came last Christmas.

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"We pray that the star of the nativity will shine on Bethlehem once again and guide all people of goodwill toward our little town, to restore its former glory as place of dignity, a pilgrimage destination and an open city for peace, " Batarseh said.

A churchgoing Catholic from a leftist party, he said the election of Hamas makes no difference to Palestinian observance of the Christmas festival.

"Nothing has changed," he said. "The tradition will go on, whatever government comes, whatever its face. Any Palestinian government respects the values of Christmas, respects the Christian Palestinians, because we are one people, not Muslims or Christians." However, there is evidence of a steady exodus of Christians from Bethlehem, because of economic difficulties as well as pressure from Muslims.

Despite its cash crisis, the Hamas government has pledged $50,000 (euro38,000) to decorate Bethlehem for Christmas, although Batarseh said the city has yet to receive a cent.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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