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'Miracle' baby draws Bethlehem crowds

Thousands of people have flocked to see the
Thousands of people have flocked to see the "miracle baby."

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BETHLEHEM, West Bank (Reuters) -- A baby born in Bethlehem is drawing crowds by the thousands.

Palestinians in the West Bank town revered by Christians as Jesus' birthplace have been thronging to the adjacent Aida refugee camp for a glimpse of the 11-day-old infant many are calling a "miracle baby."

The boy has gained attention for being born with a large birthmark across his cheek that roughly forms in Arabic letters the name of his uncle, Ala, a Hamas militant killed by Israeli troops after he was suspected of having planned a suicide bombing.

The family, devout Muslims, called it a divine message of support for the Palestinians against Israel, although some local Christians preparing for subdued Christmas observances have quietly dismissed it as lacking religious significance.

The Israeli army declined comment, but one security source said, "It sounds very freaky." The family denied any hoax.

The security source said the baby's uncle, who was shot to death eight months ago, was suspected of masterminding a bombing that killed 12 people on a Jerusalem bus in November 2002.

Cradling the baby in her arms, the infant's grandmother, Aysha Ayyad, 58, said her son secretly joined the Islamic group Hamas shortly after he was beaten by Israeli soldiers.

She said the birthmark was a sign "the soldiers can kill our sons but not our spirit." She voiced hope Israelis and Palestinians would make peace and allow her grandson to grow up free from violence.

As she spoke, an Israeli army patrol fired tear gas at stone-throwing youths nearby.

Despite the commotion, the imam from the camp's main mosque entered the crowded living room, traced a finger along the swirling birthmark -- which finishes behind the baby's right ear -- and pronounced it a "gift from God."

Adding to a tale spread mostly by word of mouth and published Monday in the Jerusalem Post, the baby -- named in honor of his dead uncle -- was born on the 27th day of the holy month of Ramadan, revered as the night the Koran was revealed to the prophet Mohammad.

When local Muslim clerics learned of the baby's birthmark, they announced it on mosque loudspeakers. The family said several thousand people had converged on the house since then.

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