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Holidays in the Holy Land

Sunday, December 16, 2001

BETHLEHEM, West Bank -- Here's how you know the holiday season in the Holy Land is in full swing:

Santa Claus has just finished his television broadcast with an Arabic rendition of "Jingle Bells" in the studios of Nativity TV, a Christian station broadcasting from a hilltop villa in Bethlehem.

As Santa leaves, he greets the next man on the air, Sheik Abdul Majid Atta, a local leader of the militant Islamic movement Hamas who dispenses an hour of religious advice to callers each afternoon during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The biggest Muslim holiday, Eid al-Fitr, begins today as Ramadan ends, joining Christmas and the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah as all three religions hold major celebrations this month amid the worsening Mideast crisis.

Just two years ago, Bethlehem's Christmas Eve party packed Manger Square and seemed to point to a prosperous future filled with an unending stream of foreign tourists.

Today, there's plenty of room at the inn. Many hotels have closed for a lack of business. Israeli forces entered Bethlehem for 10 days in October in pursuit of Palestinian militants, and Israeli gunfire turned the once-popular Paradise Hotel into a blackened shell.

In nearby Jerusalem, Rabbi Ephraim Shore, whose office is just a few paces from the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism, soaked up the beauty of a timeless scene on a recent evening.

As the sun set, bathing the city's stones in a pink light, he looked on as Jews said evening prayers at the wall. Candles of the menorah were being lit. A Jewish choir was singing.

For Shore, the moment was enhanced all the more by the Muslim call to evening prayer from a nearby mosque.

"This is the way it should be, two peoples celebrating their holy days, living together," said Shore. "It's all part of the color and life in Jerusalem."

But life in Jerusalem also means the threat of violence. Shore, a director at the Aish HaTorah seminary, keeps a pistol tucked in his waistband, even when he's sitting at his computer terminal.

Back in the Bethlehem television studio, Sheik Abdul Majid Atta is taking calls. Atta describes his show, "Lights of Belief," as a "religious program that answers questions and tries to solve problems for worshippers." He tries to deflect political questions.

After his program, Atta invites a visiting journalist for the evening meal to break the Ramadan fast, a repast shared by some 30 of his relatives in the Dheisheh refugee camp. The house features a poster of a slain Hamas militant, bandoliers of bullets across his chest.


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