BETHLEHEM, Israeli-Occupied West Bank — Thousands of Christian pilgrims ushered in Christmas at a midnight Mass on Thursday in the town revered as the birthplace of Jesus, but the holiday spirit was dampened by recent violence in the occupied territories and by bad weather.
On a frosty Christmas Eve, scores of troops patrolled streets and manned rooftops while worshipers crowded into St. Catherine's Church, next to the Church of the Nativity, and about 600 pilgrims watched the service on a huge outdoor screen in Manger Square.
Amram Mitzna, Israeli army central commander, said: "The security forces are prepared as need be to allow all who want to, to celebrate Christmas (safely) in Bethlehem."
The traditional ceremonies began when Boy Scouts led Latin Patriarch Giacomo Beltritti as he arrived in Manger Square on his way to St. Catherines, where he celebrated a Latin Mass.
Franciscan monks, as well as priests and altar boys, stood under umbrellas to greet the patriarch, who was met by Elias Freij, the Christian mayor of Bethlehem, and Israeli military officials.
Louis Hasboun, head of the Latin Patriarchate Seminary, said that only one local Christian youth band performed this year as others stayed away to protest the recent violence.
At least 25 groups performed in past years, he said, adding: "Today Christmas is different. It is limited to pilgrims and very few people."
Two Weeks of Unrest
At least 21 Palestinians have been killed and more than 150 wounded in anti-Israeli riots in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip during the last two weeks.
Freij, who canceled an annual Christmas reception for the first time in his 16 years in office to protest the army's use of force, said:
" . . . The city will be very quiet. With all the rain, cold and political tension, people are not in the mood to celebrate."
Israeli officials had expected 50,000 tourists this Christmas season, 10,000 more than last year. But only a few thousand tourists were in evidence in Bethlehem, and city officials said their number was far fewer than in previous years.
'A Bit Disappointing'
"I'm underwhelmed," said Charles Potee, 23, a visitor from Petersham, Mass. "You grow up seeing pictures of Bethlehem with the large crowds celebrating Christmas. This year is nothing. It's a bit disappointing. It's obviously because of the (Palestinian) disturbances."
Christmas celebrations in Nazareth, where legend holds that Jesus spent his boyhood, were canceled, and the traditional holiday lights and decorated trees were absent this year.
Earlier Thursday, members of the Israeli Cabinet met to review the methods the army used to suppress the recent violence in the occupied territories.
The Cabinet's 10-member security committee ended its meeting Thursday evening without offering any recommendations, although both rival factions appeared to approve of the army's measures. The talks were scheduled to continue at next week's session.
Scattered demonstrations were reported on Thursday, but the rain helped cool tempers and it was the second consecutive day with no injuries reported.