In a gripping showdown on Christmas Eve, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon prevented PLO chief Yasser Arafat from traveling to Bethlehem to attend the traditional Midnight mass in the Church of the Nativity. The move was sharply criticized worldwide, with blaring headlines blaming Arafat's forced absence for the gloom hanging over Bethlehem this Christmas, but closer examination reveals there is little reason to mourn his no-show.
Each Christmas Eve since the PLO takeover of Bethlehem in December 1995, the Muslim Arafat has attended Midnight mass in Bethlehem. The event is televised worldwide and is presided over by the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah, an Arab Catholic cleric and strong proponent of Palestinian nationalism.
Arafat was so anxious to make his annual appearance at the Midnight mass this Christmas Eve, he said he would walk there if he had to. Actually, he was feeling a little cabin fever, as Israel has confined him to Ramallah for the past three weeks, following a horrific wave of Palestinian terrorist attacks that left 34 People dead and over 300 wounded in one week.
With Christmas nearing, Israel announced that Arafat would be allowed to pass through Jerusalem to get to Bethlehem only if he first arrested the assassins of Israeli tourism minister Rehavam Ze'evi and their ringleader, Ahmed Sa'adat, head of the Popular Front for Liberation of Palestine.
The request was not that unreasonable. The PFLP had sent two gunmen to kill Ze'evi in a Jerusalem hotel in mid-October. His killers escaped to Ramallah with the help of Palestinian Authority police. In the aftermath of the murder of Ze'evi, Arafat pledged to the United States and European Union that he would arrest the two assassins, but he has not even bothered to look for them in the ten weeks since. Israel has solid intelligence that they remain in PA-controlled Ramallah, not far from where Arafat has been holding court.
But by Christmas Eve, criticism of the Israeli cordon on Arafat was pouring in from across the globe. The Palestinian Authority called upon Pope John Paul II and the international community to intervene to stop this "Israeli aggression" against Christian and Islamic holy sites.
The Vatican responded, calling it an "arbitrarily imposed" decision. The US finally ended its silence, officially urging Israel to let Arafat pass. Other world leaders and prominent Christian figures joined the growing chorus against this act of religious "intolerance." It seemed to be turning into a major international blunder, with the Israeli left warning of the long-term negative fallout from this "idiotic" act.
Just hours before conducting the mass, the Latin Patriarch Sabbah decided to make a solidarity call on Arafat in Ramallah in hopes he could somehow spring the Palestinian leader. "The dignity of the president of the Palestinian people is the dignity of every Palestinian Muslim and Christian," Sabbah assured Arafat. "The occupation situation is unfair to the Palestinians and they have to have their freedom. This is the message of Christmas."
Buoyed by Sabbah's message, Arafat told reporters: "We send our message to the whole world that no one can humiliate the Palestinian people."
Yet in the end, Arafat decided to stay put in Ramallah and reap the public relations bonanza from the apparent Israeli miscue. Addressing his people in a televised speech on Christmas Day, Arafat said he spoke "with a heart full of sadness," even though he was grinning inside.
"The Israeli tanks, the barriers, and the rifles of the oppressors have prevented me from sharing with you our annual celebration on this divine and blessed occasion," Arafat insisted. "The whole world that has seen what happened... has to know what kind of terror the worshippers in this holy land are facing."
"On the anniversary of the birth of the prophet of peace and love... they are preventing a believer of God, peace and the three monotheist religions to guide his people's Christmas celebrations," bristled Arafat. "Why not, since they permitted themselves to steal the smile from the faces of the children and prevented every Palestinian to pray or even reach Bethlehem on this holy night."
Meanwhile in Manger Square, a lone Christmas tree decorated with one light and a few colored balls shared the empty plaza with a large banner reading: "Sharon assassinates the joy of Christmas."
And Christmas morning, newspapers around the globe carried the same photo - Arafat's trademark checkered keffiyah draped over his empty chair on the front row at Midnight mass in St. Catherine's Church, built over the grotto where Jesus was born.
Many editions also featured a second photo to memorialize the somber occasion - young Palestinian scouts marching in Manger Square beneath Palestinian flags and posters of His Excellency, President Arafat.
HIJACKING CHRISTMAS:Sincere Christians who lament the "commercialization" of Christmas should be no less repulsed by the way Arafat has "politicized" this sacred holiday. In his bid to exploit the small Arab Christian minority in his midst for political purposes, Arafat has turned the annual Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem into simply yet another occasion to promote the "cult" of his own personage. The birth of Jesus has been hijacked in the name of Palestinian nationalism.
When Israel handed over Bethlehem to the Palestinian Authority three days before Christmas in 1995, Arafat flew in and delivered a speech to an overwhelmingly Muslim throng pressed into Manger Square under banners of the PLO chief and the "Engineer," revered Hamas bomb-maker Yihye Ayyash.
"Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, goodwill towards men," proclaimed Arafat, invoking the angelic message found in the Christian account of the Nativity. "In spirit and blood we will redeem thee, O Palestine!" answered the crowd.
Two days after that first "PLO" Christmas, Arafat had an editor of the Al Quds newspaper kidnapped from eastern Jerusalem and jailed for not following orders to place on the front page of the Christmas Day edition a photo of him and the Greek Orthodox Patriarch. The picture was to be accompanied by a story comparing Arafat to the Caliph Omar, the Muslim conqueror of Jerusalem who was handed the keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre by Sophronius. The editor's crime? He buried the story on page 7.
In years since, Palestinian officials admit tourism to Bethlehem has dropped and Christmas festivities have been marred by roving Muslim hooligans out to spoil Christian observances.
And over the past 16 months of the violent Palestinian intifada, Muslim gunmen in Arafat's own Fatah "Tanzim" militia have repeatedly infiltrated Christian homes and churches in neighboring Beit Jalla to shoot at the Jerusalem suburb of Gilo. The IDF has reluctantly responded to snipers firing from buildings whose owners were chased away at gunpoint.
Sadly, Christians have been driven away in droves and Manger Square is now the domain of radical Islam.
Ultimately, Arafat wants to be seen as a trusted and tolerant guardian of Christian and Muslim holy sites, since this has serious ramifications concerning who has sovereignty in the Land of Israel. But Arafat is a "jihadist" - pure and simple.
The week before Christmas, Arafat addressed a rally of supporters from Arab east Jerusalem and - alluding to a verse from the Koran - said that a "martyr" who falls while liberating Jerusalem from the Jews is worth 70 martyrs elsewhere.
No less disturbing is the PLO's deliberate falsification of Jesus' true Jewish identity over the years. Arafat has referred to Jesus as the "first Palestinian revolutionary." Other prominent Palestinians - including Christians - have frequently sought to conjure up Christian anti-Semitic images by comparing Palestinian suffering with the sufferings of Jesus. Among their twisted assertions, they refer to the "Israeli occupation" as a "constant Calvary" in which the Jews are still "crucifying the body of Christ in the land."
Christmas is a time to celebrate the eternal light and hope that entered the world with the birth of the Christ child. There is no room for the worship of a passing idol like Arafat and his deceptive brand of religious tolerance.This SPECIAL COMMENTARY was written by David Parsons, Editor of the ICEJ NEWS SERVICE.
©2001 - ICEJ