CNN World News

A biblical city changes hands

November 27, 1995
Web posted at: 11:00 p.m. EST (0400 GMT)

From Reporter Jerrold Kessel Bethlehem

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (CNN) -- As the anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ approaches, his birthplace is undergoing a major change.

A week before Christmas, Bethlehem, presently controlled by the Israeli government, will revert to Palestinian rule.

Tourists are expected to make holiday pilgrimages to Bethlehem as they have in years past, but this year residents are expecting a larger crowd than usual.

"I'm sure it will be a good Christmas," said Gerias Khoury, of the Al-Liqa Institute. "I'm sure 100 percent because the tourists will like to come to see what will be when Bethlehem is under control of the Palestinians."

Orthodox Different, it certainly will be. For the past 27 Christmases, the Israeli military governor had escorted the Latin patriarch to the formal ceremonies. Israeli troops had maintained a tight security grip on the town Christmas Eve.

The Israeli soldiers will be gone this Christmas, replaced by Yasser Arafat's police as part of Palestinian self-rule. There will be plenty of security again this year but of a wholly different kind, said Bethlehem Mayor Elias Friej.

"There will be no closure, no searches. People will be able to come in freely from all over, but there will be many of our policeman on duty to ensure that there is proper order," Friej said.

But beyond the delight at what will happen in Manger Square on Christmas Eve, Bethlehem Christians are counting on the change to usher in a new relationship with their church hierarchy.


Some Christians hope for a
greater voice in the church.

Some leaders of the dwindling Christian community are hoping the re-assertion of sovereignty will allow them to press demands for a church run by Palestinians.

"I hope that the church will continue to have its own freedom. But at the same time to be considered an inseparable part of the Palestinian community and society. If there is somebody worried about the future, then they should start to change their policy and to understand that we are going to be in a new era," said Khoury.

The charge is leveled against the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, to which most Palestinian Christians belong.

"I don't believe a Palestinian patriarch or another Palestinian leadership could do more than we have done," said Bishop Timothy, an official in Bethlehem's Greek Orthodox Church. "We are a church which listens to all the complaints, but also, as loving mother church, we have to explain to the children, to the faithful, the congregants what are the real problems."

The debate over church leadership is sure to continue. But for now, Palestinians plan a three-pronged celebration -- for their first Christmas in three decades without Israeli troops, the first ever under their control and the first in the presence of their leader.


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