Pilgrims gather at Jesus’s traditional birthplace in Bethlehem for Christmas

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The first church was built on the site in the fourth century, though it was replaced after a fire in the sixth century. (AFP)
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Bethlehem is buzzing, with more tourists expected this Christmas than have visited in years, but it is causing some unexpected problems. (AFP)
Updated 24 December 2018
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Pilgrims gather at Jesus’s traditional birthplace in Bethlehem for Christmas

  • Bethlehem has seen an increase in visitors this season after several down years due to unrest linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
  • This year, visitors are able to view the Church of the Nativity’s newly restored mosaics

BETHLEHEM, Palestinian Territories: Pilgrims from across the world gathered in Bethlehem on Monday for Christmas Eve, taking in a parade and queueing to see the grotto where Jesus is believed to have been born.
The Palestinian scouts and a bagpipe band paraded in Manger Square across from the Church of the Nativity, built at the traditional site of Jesus’s birth.
Crowds, some wearing Santa hats or holding balloons, looked on at the square decked out with a giant Christmas tree and a manger as carols in Arabic played through speakers.
The Catholic archbishop for the Holy Land, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, was due to arrive in the afternoon and will later lead midnight mass.
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas was to be among dignitaries attending the mass.
This year, visitors are able to view the Church of the Nativity’s newly restored mosaics after they were recently cleaned and repaired in a major project.
The first church was built on the site in the fourth century, though it was replaced after a fire in the sixth century.
A newer and more spacious church, St. Catherine, is located next door.
“It’s a great opportunity to be in such a symbolic location for Christmas,” said Lea Gudel, a 21-year-old French exchange student studying in Jerusalem and who was in Manger Square on Monday morning.
Bethlehem, located in the occupied West Bank near Jerusalem but cut off from the city by Israel’s separation barrier, has seen an increase in visitors this season after several down years due to unrest linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Palestinian tourism officials and hotel operators have reported their strongest season in years.
“This year is much more calm, much better than last year,” said Abeer Nasser, a Palestinian from the nearby town of Beit Sahour who was with her son and daughter and was planning to attend midnight mass.
“Every year I feel more in the mood to celebrate despite the political situation,” the 37-year-old added, referring to the Israeli occupation.


Jordan campaigns to combat drug addiction taboo

Jordan courts sentence drug traffickers for up to 20 years. (AFP)
Updated 14 min 27 sec ago
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Jordan campaigns to combat drug addiction taboo

  • The number of drug addictions in Jordan increased by 32% since 2017
  • Authorities arrested 20,000 in 2018 for drug abuse

AMMAN: Issam was reduced to tears recounting his life as a drug addict, as Jordanian authorities press an unprecedented campaign in the Muslim-majority country where substance abuse remains taboo.
Slogans such as “No to Drugs” are part of the new drive, launched in the wake of a worrying rise in the number of cases of addiction, possession and smuggling, to raise overall awareness of the issue, according to the anti-narcotics department.
Jordan’s public security directorate has also started a primetime radio show that airs every Tuesday to address the dangers of drug addiction.
“Drugs have made me an outcast. No one respects me or even looks at me,” Issam said during the show, hosted by Major Anas Al-Tantawi of the anti-narcotics department.
“It got to the point where I sold my furniture and my five-year-old daughter’s gold earrings ... I tried to commit suicide twice.”
As the show came to a close, Tantawi said: “They are victims, and we must help them, not discard them.”
Brigadier Anwar Al-Tarawneh, director of the anti-narcotics department, told AFP there has been a 32 percent increase in cases of addiction, possession smuggling in Jordan since 2017.
The evidence is there. In a room in the department, the shelves are crammed with white plastic bags and brown envelopes bulging with seized drugs — including heroin, cocaine and amphetamines. Some were smuggled into the country in hollowed-out books, or shoes or disguised as pastries in a box.
But authorities say hashish is the most commonly used drug in the kingdom, where 20,000 people were arrested in 2018 for drug abuse.
Drug traffickers in Jordan, which has a small population of just over nine million, face sentences of between three and 20 years, depending on the amount and type of drugs seized.
Under a 2016 law, addicts are exempted from serving time if they agree to treatment at a rehabilitation center.
But drug addicts are generally still looked down upon by Jordan’s conservative society.
“Drugs are a (vice) that affects one’s mind, soul, finances and health,” Muslim preacher Raed Sabri, who has a YouTube channel, told AFP.
Recovering addicts however must be “cared for and not discarded so that they can again be contributing members of society,” he insisted.
The kingdom’s anti-drugs campaign targets those aged between 18 and 27, who make up 47 percent of users, according to the anti-narcotics department.
According to Jamal Al-Anani, a psychiatrist and drug addiction specialist, “curiosity, lack of maturity and stress” are the main causes that lead to addiction among teenagers.
Apart from workshops in schools and universities, Tarawneh said authorities were using “modern methods,” including social media, to reach those most vulnerable.
At a 170-bed rehab center in the capital Amman, affiliated with the public security directorate, posters on the walls read “Drugs are a Monster, don’t come near” and “Drugs are a Waste of Money.”
Treatment lasts between one and two months, said Fawaz Al-Masaeed, the center’s director.
“There are three stages: detox, treatment and rehabilitation,” he told AFP, and the center follows up with patients for four months after their discharge.
Omar, 32, said his mother encouraged him to check in to the center after having struggled with drug addiction for 14 years.
“A friend offered me a cigarette when I was depressed, telling me ‘Take this, it’ll make you relax,’” Omar, now a father of four, told AFP.
“When I asked for another, I realized it was hashish ... I was 18 years old.”
After years of substance abuse, “my health deteriorated, I lost 27 kilos, I lost my job, and it strained my relationships with everyone around me. I destroyed my life.”
Now after his rehabilitation, Omar hopes “to start a new life.”