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Christmas in Bethlehem: few tourists, no Arafat

Tourists on Christmas Day stayed away from the town where Jesus was born, frightened by more than a year of violence, and Israel prevented Yasser Arafat from making his annual pilgrimage.

Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah conducted morning Mass in Bethlehem, and about 300 people gathered for an afternoon procession through nearby Shepherds' Field in the mostly Christian town of Beit Sahour, where biblical tradition says the herders watching their sheep heard the news of the Christ Child's birth, the Associated Press reported.

The group, which included local residents as well as priests from abroad, held prayers in a nearby church. The annual longer procession, from Manger Square about two miles away, was scrapped for lack of participants.

With pilgrims and tourists almost entirely absent this year, there were few Christmas decorations and Manger Square reverted by midmorning to a parking lot as local residents, many of them Muslims, milled about, conducting business as usual.

Politics overwhelmed the celebration. A high point of the evening was a speech by Arafat, who is marooned in the town of Ramallah, 18 kilometres miles to the north. Palestinians in Manger Square watching the speech on TV applauded after Arafat blasted the Israelis.

Arafat complained, "The Israeli tanks, the barriers and the rifles of the oppressors have prevented me from sharing with you our annual celebration on this divine and blessed occasion."