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Friday, December 25, 1998 Published at 10:37 GMT

World: Middle East

Peace fears at Bethlehem Mass

Muslims and Christians joined in the celebrations in Manger Square

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has attended Christmas Mass in Bethlehem, but deadlock in the Middle East peace process clouded celebrations.

Stephen Gibbs: A celebration of autonomy
Thousands of Palestinian Christians and Muslims came together for the midnight service at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Mr Arafat was guest of honour. He was joined by his wife Suha in the West Bank town, which according to Christian tradition is the birthplace of Jesus Christ.

But Suha Arafat said deadlock in the Middle East peace process meant this Christmas was a sad one for both Christians and Muslims.

And she described President Clinton's recent visit to the Middle East as a mere "photo opportunity".

[ image: Yasser Arafat was a guest of honour]
Yasser Arafat was a guest of honour
She said: "Today it is Christmas, it is Ramadan. The prisoners are still in prison, the oppression continues.

"Right, Clinton was here but it was just a photo opportunity and nothing more."

The mass in the fourth century church was a solemn religious event, conducted in Latin and seen on television by hundreds of millions of Christians around the world.

But in the three years since the Palestinians gained control of Bethlehem, it has also become a Palestinian state occasion.

Message of peace

The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah, preached a politically-tinged sermon, saying that Bethlehem could not enjoy the Christmas message of peace.

[ image: Security was tight for the occasion]
Security was tight for the occasion
The patriarch - the highest-ranking Roman Catholic clergyman in the region - said the angels had marked Christ's birth by singing "glory to God in the highest and peace on earth".

"That is not the motto of those who believe they are strong, who oppress the people," the patriarch said in a clear reference to Israel.

Jeremy Bowen: Atmosphere of a state occasion
Admission to the mass was by ticket only, amid heavy security.

Television screens relayed the mass to a large crowd who spent the evening in Manger Square, entertained by church choirs and a display of fireworks.

Children wore Santa Claus hats and shops sported tinsel decorations - but the atmosphere was less commercial than that which Westerners have come to expect from Christmas.

Most of the people in the square were local Palestinians. There were fewer Christian pilgrims and foreign tourists than usual, with the Iraq crisis and political tensions between Israel and the Palestinians keeping visitors away.

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