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Saturday, 21 December, 2002, 12:29 GMT
Christmas 'stolen' from Bethlehem
The streets around what is believed to be the birthplace of Jesus would once have been filled with tourists
Manger Square is almost deserted

Born and bred in Bethlehem, David Mansour has only one Christmas wish - a way out.

With a quick glance towards his wife, holding the youngest of their five children, he tells me that all he wants for Christmas is an American visa.

An Israeli jeep patrols the streets of Bethlehem
Israeli troops patrol the ancient streets of Bethlehem
His older children sit in a quiet cluster across the comfortable living-room. A plaster statute of the Virgin Mary stands in the corner. A heavy wooden crucifix hangs on the wall.

"There's something else I want," he says, lowering his voice so that it doesn't carry to the youngsters a few feet away. "I hope the curfew stays in place," he says, " because I don't have any money to buy Christmas presents for them. If there's still a curfew I can blame that."

Below his house is a silent workshop. Twelve men used to toil here producing wooden Christmas cribs, housing tiny carved figures of Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus.

Food aid

"At Christmas time we used to sell 10 cribs a week to tourists," he says. But tourists are a thing of the past here - no more gleaming coaches choking the narrow stone streets - only Israeli troops on patrol.

The last crib David sold was to a journalist, and that was over a month ago.

From the pocket of his plaid shirt he produces a small pink card, marked ' Urban Voucher Programme'. "This is what I depend on now," he tells me. It's a food coupon from the Red Cross.

A few Palestinian Christians attend mass at the Church of the Nativity
Many are facing an empty fearful Christmas
He closes his eyes, reciting his bills like a prayer - school fees, utilities, rent to the Orthodox convent for his shop off Manger Square. The tally runs into thousands.

"If the Israelis would only go," he says, "then we could start working again and the tourists might come back. I could get on my feet again in three or four months." If not, he'll be trying to follow in the footsteps of 1,000 other Christians who have fled Bethlehem in the past two years.

But David is not too hopeful. His visa application has already been turned down once.

As I leave I pass a stack of small wooden crosses lying unwanted at the front door. David waves me goodbye at the gate - he can go no further because of the curfew.

I head for the heart of Bethlehem, following a trail of rubbish to Manger Square. All along John Paul II street, boarded-up shop fronts, broken-down cardboard boxes and piles of rotting vegetables.

Businesses closed

Closer to the square Israeli tanks have gnawed away at the pavement. Enormous chunks of concrete litter the area like half-eaten pieces of meat.

Every business is closed - the money changer, the insurance office, the 'Peace' restaurant.

If Joseph and Mary had the misfortune to come back today they could take their pick - every inn has empty rooms, but no reason to open its doors.

Priest at the Church of the Nativity
A priest prepares for midnight mass, but the faithful are largely staying away
The square is as empty and desolate as a classroom after school - no Christmas tree, no lights, no decorations. The Israelis have stolen Christmas, the Palestinians say. At the Nativity Church, where Christians believe their saviour was born, there is no hint that his birthday is coming.

The front door is closed. The curfew is keeping believers away.

This empty, fearful Christmas will be the first for baby Hind Bandak, a smiling infant with brown curls and tiny diamond studs in her ears.

She came into the world on a cold day last April when Israeli troops were choking the streets. The Red cross couldn't reach her mother Manal who was already in labour. We came across her as she struggled down the street on foot to rendezvous with an ambulance.

A few hours later, we saw her new-born daughter, in the arms of a legendary nurse , Sister Sophie, who has seen generations come into the world at Bethlehem's Holy Family Hospital.

"I feel sorry for her," she said, lying Hind down gently in an incubator. "With this conflict, what kind of future will she have?"

Eight months on her parents have no answer for that. In their gleaming, modern apartment they are watching their future fade away.

Their hotel - which had a staff of 40 - is now shut. They had invested heavily in renovations, reopening for business two years ago on the day the Palestinian uprising began. They opened and closed on the same day.

"We are not living " Hind's father Khaled says. "There is no future, no hope. Hind will need a vaccination in January. I can't even be sure I'll be able to drive her to the doctor for that."

On Christmas Eve the family will try to make it to Manger Square to attend mass in the Nativity Church. This year it doesn't seem wise to hope for much more than that.

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