Rain Cuts Christmas Crowds in Bethlehem

Palestinian street vendors sells balloons for Christmas near the Nativity Church. i i

Palestinian street vendors sells balloons for Christmas near the Nativity Church during the traditional Christmas Eve procession to Manger Square. Menahem Kahana/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Menahem Kahana/Getty Images
Palestinian street vendors sells balloons for Christmas near the Nativity Church.

Palestinian street vendors sells balloons for Christmas near the Nativity Church during the traditional Christmas Eve procession to Manger Square.

Menahem Kahana/Getty Images

Cool, wet weather discourages tourism in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve and dampens Palestinian merchants' high hopes for the holiday. The barrier Israel is erecting to separate Jerusalem from the West Bank may also factor in the turnout.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Debbie Elliott.

It's Christmas Eve, and worshipers have gathered in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

(Soundbite of worship music)

ELLIOTT: Palestinians had hoped there would be a big crowd this year on Manger Square, but with cold rainy weather, the turnout was disappointing. NPR's Linda Gradstein is on Manger Square and joins me now.

Hello, Linda.

LINDA GRADSTEIN reporting:

Hello, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: So is the poor turnout weather-related, do you think?

GRADSTEIN: It seems to be. I spoke to one pilgrim from India, and he said that a whole group had come of several dozen people, but many of them stayed in the hotel; they were elderly and they felt that they just couldn't be outside. I mean, it's raining; the temperatures are probably close to freezing. There is a forecast that it might snow tonight, which happens only once every few years, so there would be a white Christmas. But shop owners say they're very disappointed in the turnout. One shop owner I spoke to said this has been one of the worst Christmases that he's had in decades. His father started the show in 1927, and he's worked with him for the past 40 years and he says that the pilgrims simply did not come.

ELLIOTT: Now we had seen reports that hotel rooms were booked and they were really expecting a bigger turnout than in the past several years.

GRADSTEIN: Well, that's true. The city is certainly more decorated. There's a lot of lights. A lot of money was spent in decorating it, and Israel announced that it was easing security restrictions, that tourists would not be stopped and checked at the roadblocks, that they would be free to come to Bethlehem, that Palestinians from the West Bank would be free to come. But I think because of the weather, many people stayed away and just decided not to come. And people here say they really are very disappointed, that they really had hoped that this year might be a little bit different. In the past few years, tourism has really been down; this year tourism both to Israel and to Bethlehem has really increased. There has been a marked decrease in Israeli-Palestinian violence, and they were really hoping that they would see jam-packed crowds. I spoke to one man, a Palestinian who was born in Bethlehem, and he said, you know, in the 1970s and '80s you could barely moved; the streets would be jammed with people. And now the streets are empty. Manger Square, a very large space, feels almost empty.

ELLIOTT: Linda, what are the hopes of Bethlehem residents for the coming year?

GRADSTEIN: Well, what they say, first of all, is that they hope there will be a peace agreement with Israel. One of the main subjects here is the barrier that Israel is building in and around the West Bank. That barrier runs right through the center of Bethlehem. It cuts Bethlehem off from Jerusalem. Several of the shop owners I spoke to said they used to import materials from Israel and export, and that their business has really been affected by this. The Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah, said that Bethlehem because of the barrier has become like one big prison. So that really is the main issue on everybody's agenda here. They're hoping that the barrier will somehow be taken down. It really--you see it right at the entrance to Bethlehem, and it runs right through the city.

ELLIOTT: NPR's Linda Gradstein in Bethlehem. Thank you.

GRADSTEIN: Thank you.

ELLIOTT: And thousands of faithful gathered in St. Peter's Square in Rome to hear Benedict XVI celebrate his first Christmas Mass since becoming pope. Hours before the service, the pontiff lit a peace candle on the windowsill of his private apartment overlooking the square. In Iraq, Baghdad's small Christian community celebrated Christmas Eve in the afternoon to avoid traveling after dark.

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