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Middle East Monica Dispatch

Christmas Eve in Bethlehem 1999
January 5, 2000

"Let us enter into the new millennium with the desire to arrive at...the peace of the peoples that inhabit this land."
-Father Giovanni Battistelli of the Franciscan Order

Monica sends her Christmas Greetings

Monica at St. Catherine Church

Listen to the Songs of Christmas

Angels We Have Heard on High
Oh Come All Ye Faithful

You must have the RealPlayer.

Midnight Mass in the Church of St. Catherine's in Bethlehem is packed: the Prime Ministers of Spain, Italy and Morocco, as well as the President of Uganda are here, seated in front, near the altar. I'm also here, but I'm standing in the back, behind the two thousand other pilgrims who made it to this site. If I stand on my tippy toes I can see the black-and-white keffeyah of Yasser Arafat, Chairman of the Palestinian Authority: he slipped in with his bodyguards when we were all singing the "Angels We Have Heard on High." It's hard for me to keep awake, but I'm excited about being here: I belt out the Latin songs printed in the handbook that Franciscan priests offered all the celebrants, even though my voice isn't that good.


Tonight is a special night in Bethlehem. The Church of St. Catherine's stands next to the Church of the Nativity, which is celebrated as the place where Jesus Christ was born. Outside, Manger Square is decorated festively with lights, and fifteen thousand people listen to a free concert with 12 choirs, including the very best Cuban gospel choir in the world: now *that's* some good singing. Now, everyone's watching the ceremony that's being broadcast from inside St. Catherine's, as well as a simulcast of the festivities at the Vatican, where the Pope is also celebrating mass. I'm inside because I scored a free ticket in advance to enter the church.

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Christmas in Bethlehem

I've come to Bethlehem with students from Seeds of Peace. You can read more about them in my upcoming dispatches. Earlier this evening, our group visited Shepherd's Field, in Beit Sahour. Adham Rishmawi, an SOP student from Beit Sahour, read the story from the Bible of what it is we're celebrating. The students here from Seeds of Peace are a mixture of Palestinian, Israeli, and Arab Israeli kids. Seeds of Peace runs a summer camp in the United States where students like these, who would probably not meet each other in another context, come together to learn about each other's history, culture, and religion.

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Welcome to Manger Square

Christmas celebrates the birth of Christ, and some of the students here are Christian--others are Jewish, Muslim, and non-religious. Adham, for example, celebrates what I call "Christmas Eve" on January 6, because he's from a different branch of Christianity than I am. However, all the SOPs respect the belief of the Christians, as well as the Muslims here. Islam accepts Christ as one of the holy figures. The group I'm with wanders around Shepherd's Field in awe: it's the site where angels announcing the birth of Jesus are believed to have appeared to shepherds "keeping their flocks by night," two millennia ago. Although people all over the world are celebrating the entrance of the new millennium, check our team dispatch for some different opinions.

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Decorated for the celebration

The Latin Patriarch in the Holy Land is Michel Sabbah, and he, along with about a dozen other priests, is saying mass. His title means he's the head of the Franciscan Order, which is appointed by the Roman Catholic Church as "Custodia Terrae Sanctae," (custodians of the sacred ground). Father Michel has strong words to say during his sermon tonight, which he delivers in Arabic and French to the assembled leaders.

"Peace with the Palestinian people remains the heart of the problem, and is an essential condition for peace throughout the region," he points out.

keffeyah - black & white checkered headscarf worn by Palestinians
throng - a large crowd of people

"Peace in our context involves restoring the dignity and rights of the refugees, granting the prisoners their freedom and ensuring the sacred character of Jerusalem," he continues.

Those are all complicated and hotly-contested issues that are always in the newspapers here, and I'm glad he delivers the message in this context, where people from all over the world have gathered to listen and participate in this special celebration.

An interview by the mayor of Bethlehem regarding Christmas festivities

Father Michel is the first Palestinian to become the senior Roman Catholic official in this Holy Land. He asks us to pray.

"In our Holy Land, and in the whole region, we pray that peace has a just ending, for both Palestinians and Israelis," he says, and during the "Oratio Universalis" the whole congregation prays aloud.

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Free concert!

Students like those from Seeds of Peace have a revolutionary way of working towards peace: they meet each other, as individuals, as people, as friends. While they argue, disagree, sometimes cry and sometimes fight, for example, during their "coexistence sessions" at camp, some of them end up being best friends. One of the counselors likes to say that we might not have peace in the region, but amongst ourselves, we have found peace and understanding.

The SOPs are trying to see each other's points of view. They are working--together--towards peace. If Israeli students like Efrat and Liat from Jerusalem, and Palestinian students like Muh from Hebron can come together for fun, fellowship, and a shared visit to Bethlehem without conflict, then, insha'allah (God willing), Father Michel's prayer WILL become reality in the next millennium.

Expert Fact


Did you know that "Bethlehem", is based on the Hebrew "Beit Lehem" which means "House of Bread" and the Arabic "Bayt Il-Laham" which means House of Meat?

Provided by: Geoffrey Aronson, Foundation for Middle East Peace(FMEP)

In the meantime, the mass is nearly over, and I'm heading out the door to join the throngs of people outside in Manger Square. A friend of the organizers of Bethlehem 2000's free concert series, has graciously invited me to spend the rest of Christmas Eve at a nearby apartment with stockings, a tiny tree, shining lights, and...a fuzzy ball Velcro dartboard--fun, fun, FUN!!! But most important to me is the spirit of community and sharing we are all giving one another. I hope that spirit inspires you, not only on special nights like this, but all throughout the year. May peace be with you.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Abeja - Religions of the World, Unite!
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Kavitha - Homeless in Your Own House
Monica - A New Year, A Fresh Start?
Team - Exercise Your Right and Write

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