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Hope and Renewal in Christianity's Cradle

Amid peace hopes for Israelis and Palestinians, Christians feel a new freedom to celebrate the founding of their faith

ELIAS FREIJ, the mayor of Bethlehem, is determined that this week, for the first time in seven years, his town will celebrate Christmas properly.

Ever since the Palestinian intifadah, the uprising against Israeli rule, broke out in the Israeli-occupied territories in December 1987, public displays of joy have been deemed inappropriate by local political leaders. With thousands of young men going to jail each year and scores giving up their lives, Palestinian Christians have kept their Christmas celebrations low key.

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But now that Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) have signed their historic peace treaty, Mr. Freij wants to do things right.

``We are going to decorate the city in a beautiful way,'' he says, looking out of his office window across Manger Square to the Church of the Nativity.

The centerpiece was to be a giant Christmas tree, donated, appropriately enough, by the government of Norway, which sponsored the secret talks between Israel and the PLO that produced the peace accord.

But even this simple plan, in the one town of all towns that has a special reason to commemorate the birth of Jesus, is falling prey to circumstance. Israel's Agriculture Ministry blocked the tree's import for health reasons.

Violence has only increased since the peace plan was signed in September, as both Jewish and Palestinian extremists try to derail it, and Palestinians have little to point to yet in the way of fruits of the agreement.

``Last month, people were preparing themselves for a nice Christmas, with the feeling that there would be peace,'' says Johnny Elias, owner of the Star Hotel, and himself a Christian.

``But nothing has changed, and with the killings in the last two weeks, people have started to say that they won't celebrate after all,'' he says.

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Politics and religion are deeply intertwined in Bethlehem, jostling each other constantly in everyone's daily life.

Indeed, they glare out from every ancient wall. Above many doorways of homes or shops, for example, bas-relief carvings of St. George slaying the dragon advertise the owner's Christian faith.

On the walls below, more likely than not, graffiti spray-painted in the red, green, and black Palestinian national colors proclaim defiance of Israeli authority.

The only building free of these political tattoos is the Church of the Nativity, built by early Christians over the spot where tradition says Jesus was born.

Not that the church is free of politics. Its own brand of rivalry between the Armenian and Greek Orthodox churches that have shared the precincts for more than 1,500 years, not to mention the Roman Catholics who staked their claim with the arrival in the 11th century of the Crusaders, matches any secular struggle.

Disputes over such details as who cleans which bit of the hallowed walls, or which bishop is allowed to step exactly where in the flagstoned aisle, are still resolved by referring to the ``status quo,'' first drawn up by the Ottomans in the 19th century, and later codified by the British.

But this competition between Christians is overshadowed by the church's unique ecumenical contribution. When the Persians swept through the Holy Land in 614, the church at Bethlehem was the only one they spared because a Byzantine mosaic on the wall portrayed in Persian garb the three wise men visiting the new-born babe.

Later, Muslim conquerors also venerated the birthplace of Issa ben Maryam (Jesus, son of Mary), whom they regarded as a prophet, and the church is today the only one in Christendom where Muslims may pray.

Such an example of coexistence is unfortunately unusual in a town where Christians say they feel increasingly marginalized by the Muslim majority.

Christians make up only 35 percent of Bethlehem's population today, after nearly a century of emigration to all parts of the globe, but primarily to Latin America, and especially to Chile. There are said to be more people from Bethlehem and its neighboring villages, Beit Sahur and Beit Jala, in Santiago than there are in the original towns themselves. Christians better off

Better educated - often in religious schools - than the average Palestinian, and beckoned by religious affinities abroad, Christian Palestinians have found it easy to emigrate. At the same time, the economic prospects at home have long been grim, especially since Israel captured the West Bank in 1967. Culturally, too, says Bernard Sabella, a professor of Sociology at Bethlehem University, Christian Palestinians' upbringing has tended to distance them from their Muslim cousins.

Certainly, the souvenirs and gifts that decorate Mayor Freij's office - including a photograph of the Pope and a letter from the Queen of England - suggest more in common with Western Europe than with the West Bank.

Dr. Sabella says, ``We [Christians] have been exposed to a style of life which is more geared to the Western, liberal style, where more individuality is allowed, and there is less reliance on family or community.'' She adds, ``It makes you less willing to make sacrifices, and more likely to think of emigration instead.''

One Christian who has been thinking about emigrating for several years says the sense of cultural disorientation, of not quite belonging, often makes his life in Beit Sahur uneasy. ``We as Christians have these mixed feelings, these mixed affiliations,'' he says. ``So the [Muslim] fanatics see us as a strange body, and the Israelis see us as Palestinians. It is really a difficult situation.''

Emigration has aged the Christian community that has stayed: Its average age is 28, compared with the general Palestinian average of 17. ``That means you don't have many children, that the 20- to 30-year-olds are leaving the country, that in a sense it is not an active population, but a retiring one,'' says Sabella, whose university, incidentally, is another example of how religion and politics rub shoulders in Bethlehem: It is funded by both the Vatican and the PLO. What the accord represents

Christians in Bethlehem wholeheartedly welcome the prospect of peace, expressing the hope that the end to conflict between Israelis and Palestinians will prevent the further decline of their community.

``The September accord means that maybe we can celebrate Christmas as it should be,'' Sabella says, ``but it is much more than that. It means that eventually we can invigorate our community ... that people wouldn't leave. We have a lot to gain from peace in the Holy Land; it's the safeguard for our future.''

Commercially, too, peace would be a godsend for Bethlehem, for although the town already attracts 1 million tourists a year, hardly any of them do more than visit the Church of the Nativity. Bethlehemites hope that in the future, more will choose to stay in the town, and Mr. Elias is getting ready to put them up at the Star Hotel. ``We've prepared ourselves for peace,'' he says. ``We've refurbished the lobby, put an awning over the roof garden, we've added rooms, and we have started to change the carpets and do a paint job. I'm preparing for a good season, and we've had a lot of reservations in the last two months.''

Freij, too, has his sights set on tourism. ``Bethlehem is built on barren mountains at the edge of the Judean desert, and we have no resources,'' he says. ``We were blessed with one thing, the birth of Jesus Christ, and we must put all our efforts into building a tourist industry.

``When we celebrate Christmas, we celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace in the place where he was born,'' the mayor adds. ``That is unique.''

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