Holiday mostly quiet despite threats

Friday, December 26, 2003

From the walls of Vatican City to Bethlehem's Manger Square and beyond, the world celebrated Christmas amid terror warnings and Mideast violence that underscored Pope John Paul II's latest appeal for peace.

U.S. troops in Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit paused in their patrols Thursday to mark the holiday with sliced turkey, cranberry sauce and apple pie. Their colleagues in Afghanistan sang Christmas carols and dressed as Santas and elves in a parade of decorated jeeps and Humvees.

"Of course it bothers me that I'm away from my family. But I'm doing good work, so it doesn't bother me so much," said Sgt. Jay Coniglia, a 10th Mountain Division soldier from Rochester, N.Y., as he manned the gate at the main U.S. base in Afghanistan at Bagram.

'As many as it takes'

"I have no idea how many more Christmases we'll be here -- as many as it takes," he said.

The Christmas mood was a bit more gloomy in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, where Filipino workers bused in from Israel were virtually the only foreigners attending English-language Masses in the traditional birthplace of Jesus.

Three years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting have kept thousands of tourists and pilgrims away, and dampened spirits of Palestinian residents who relied on tourism for their livelihoods.

The pope turned his thoughts to Israelis and Palestinians during his traditional Christmas Day greeting, as well as the "great evils" of war and terrorism afflicting mankind at the start of the third millennium.

"Save us from the wars and armed conflicts which lay waste whole areas of the world, from the scourge of terrorism and from the many forms of violence which assail the weak and the vulnerable," John Paul said to thousands of people gathered in St. Peter's Square under a brilliant sun.

"Save us from discouragement as we face the paths to peace, difficult paths indeed, yet possible and therefore necessary," he said, his voice strong despite having celebrated a lengthy midnight Mass just hours earlier.

He stressed it was particularly urgent to follow such paths to peace in the Middle East.

Security around the Vatican was particularly tight this year, amid reports that churches could become terrorist targets. Clusters of police lined the main boulevard leading to St. Peter's on Thursday morning, and the faithful attending Midnight Mass had to pass through metal detectors.

Intelligence warnings of possible terrorist plots also prompted the cancellation of six Air France flights between Los Angeles and Paris. The cancellations added to holiday tensions already high since President Bush raised the national terror alert level to orange, the second-highest level, on Sunday.

Violence, meanwhile, continued in Iraq, with anti-U.S. forces unleashing a string of grenade, rocket and mortar attacks across Baghdad. The Ishtar Sheraton Hotel, where many foreigners live, the Iranian and Turkish embassies, banks and the gates of a U.S. army base were targeted, although only one person was injured.

"I guess they think security's going to be downgraded because of the holiday," Army Lt. Kurt Muniz of New York City said after the hotel attack. "If they want to bring it, I say bring it on."

Christmas in India

Outside the war zones, though, Christmas went off relatively without incident.

Thousands of Christians in mostly Hindu India decorated their homes, dressed as Santas and flocked to five-star hotels for parties -- despite fears of violence raised by anti-Christian pamphlets distributed in western Gujarat state, which has been plagued by religious violence this past week.

World leaders issued their traditional greetings: Queen Elizabeth II paid tribute to British troops who took part in the Iraq war, while Swedish King Carl XVI Gustaf praised Foreign Minister Anna Lindh as a role model. Lindh was fatally stabbed Sept. 10.

And in Puerto Rico, the centuries-old tradition of the Christmas parranda continued, with revelers bursting into homes around midnight to sing Christmas carols and play music on maracas and gourds in exchange for food and drink. While the tradition has waned in recent years because of high crime, some parties still went off without a hitch.

"This is the best parranda in San Juan," said Charles Juhasz, whose home was targeted this year. "They come and drink everything!"

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