Celebrations muted but Christmas spirit high in Bethlehem

Celebrations muted but Christmas spirit high in Bethlehem
1 / 3
Christian worshippers pray inside the Grotto at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank on December 19, 2021. (AFP)
Celebrations muted but Christmas spirit high in Bethlehem
2 / 3
Latin Catholic clergies gather at the Church of the Nativity in the city of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank on December 21, 2021. (AFP)
Celebrations muted but Christmas spirit high in Bethlehem
3 / 3
The faithful visit the Church of the Nativity in the city of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank on December 21, 2021. (AFP)
Short Url
Updated 23 December 2021

Celebrations muted but Christmas spirit high in Bethlehem

Celebrations muted but Christmas spirit high in Bethlehem
  • Annual parade set to go ahead but omicron variant threat will mean fewer performances, tourists

BETHLEHEM: Musicians in Bethlehem have been fine-tuning their final preparations for a Dec. 24 parade popular with tourists despite a recent spike in COVID-19 cases.

Orchestras and scout groups are an integral part of the festive celebrations in the Palestinian West Bank city, and bands are set to perform at a number of key locations including the square fronting the Church of the Nativity, where Christians believe Jesus Christ was born.

The parade traditionally gets underway in the morning and continues throughout the day until midnight mass. However, because of the coronavirus pandemic, the number of sites it visits will be fewer than in previous years.

Despite an increased vaccination program in the Palestinian territories, the arrival of the omicron variant looks likely to set back any significant revival of Bethlehem’s tourism trade.

But resident Samer Hodley, 47, said people remained upbeat. “Although people are feeling frustrated again, we are enjoying the atmosphere and spirit of Christmas.”

Some visitors from overseas, and Palestinians from Israel and other cities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, were still expected to visit Bethlehem.

Anton Salman, Bethlehem’s mayor, said that despite fears about a new wave of COVID-19 infections, the festive celebrations would go ahead as planned.
“Bethlehem and its people deserve to feel the joy of the birth of Christ,” he added.
The Church of the Nativity has been the focal point of Christmas celebrations for centuries and attracts visitors from around the world.

Fr. Francisco Pato said: “Despite the bad news of the appearance of the omicron mutation, we hope that pilgrims will return and celebrate with the Christians here.”

Christmas in Bethlehem is celebrated on different dates because of the various Christian faiths. The Catholic and Protestant churches mark the occasion on Dec. 24, while the Orthodox church does so on Jan. 7, followed by the Armenian celebrations.
The expected dip in tourists has had a serious impact on Bethlehem’s economy.
Loreen Sabbagh, owner of an antique shop, said: “Bethlehem has collapsed economically due to the cessation of foreign tourism in recent years. But foreign and domestic tourism has begun to pick up again, albeit slowly.”

Salman said: “Sixty-seven hotels, 170 stores for oriental antiquities, and dozens of restaurants and facilities closed due to the pandemic, but they have begun to recover.”
Bethlehem has always relied heavily on tourism and every year the municipality organizes a Christmas market to provide a platform for locals to promote their products.
Carmen Ghattas, director of public relations for the municipality, said: “The Christmas market is an opportunity for those affected by the pandemic and the closures to boost their business. We want to be happy, the pandemic will not stop us, and we will take preventive measures to restore tourism to the city of Bethlehem.”

Tourist Najwan Safi was pleased to be back in Bethlehem after a hiatus of two years. She and others gathered in Manger Square to take pictures beside the Christmas tree there.
“I used to come to Bethlehem every year to attend the Christmas celebrations, but this year, because of the new variant, we could only visit the market and take pictures in front of the Christmas tree. We deserve joy and happiness,” she said.


Amnesty urges Yemen’s Houthi militia to free journalists on death row

Updated 8 sec ago

Amnesty urges Yemen’s Houthi militia to free journalists on death row

Amnesty urges Yemen’s Houthi militia to free journalists on death row
DUBAI: Amnesty International has urged Yemen’s Houthi militia to free four journalists facing the death penalty for “espionage” in the war-torn country, ahead of an appeal court hearing on Sunday.
The four, Abdul Khaleq Amran, Tawfiq Al-Mansouri, Harith Hamid and Akram Al-Walidi were arrested in June 2015 in Yemen’s Houthi-held capital Sanaa.
“Yemen’s Houthi de facto authorities must quash the death sentences and order the immediate release of four Yemeni journalists who are facing execution following a grossly unfair trial,” the rights group said in a statement on Friday.
In April 2020, a Houthi court sentenced the four journalists to death on charges of “treason and spying for foreign states.”
“This has been a sham of a trial since the beginning and has borne a terrible toll on the men and their families,” said Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa deputy director Lynn Maalouf, according to the statement.
One of the detained men, Mansouri, is in a “critical health condition” with heart and other ailments, Amnesty said.
“Pending their overdue release, the journalists must be provided with urgent medical care — the denial of medical treatment for the seriously ill is an act of cruelty which amounts to torture and other ill-treatment,” the statement said.
At the time of their trial, Amnesty criticized their sentencing on “trumped-up charges,” while Reporters Without Borders called the verdict “totally unacceptable.”
Their arrest was motivated by their reporting on “human rights violations committed by Houthis,” the International Federation of Journalists and the Yemeni Journalists’ Syndicate have said.
An appeal will be heard by the Specialized Criminal Appeals Division in Sanaa on Sunday.

US should prioritize Somali civilian protection: HRW

US should prioritize Somali civilian protection: HRW
Updated 20 May 2022

US should prioritize Somali civilian protection: HRW

US should prioritize Somali civilian protection: HRW
  • ‘Officials should be very clear on how forces will avoid harming Somali civilians during military operations’
  • Biden signed order reversing Trump administration decision to withdraw nearly all 700 troops

LONDON: US military forces redeploying to Somalia must make civilian protection “a priority,” Human Rights Watch said on Friday.

US President Joe Biden on Monday signed an order reversing a Trump administration decision to remove nearly all 700 American troops from the East African state and redeploy them as part of a joint operation with the Somali government to tackle Al-Shabab, an affiliate of Al-Qaeda.

“US officials should be very clear on how forces will avoid harming Somali civilians during military operations,” said Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director at HRW.

“They will need to work closely with the Somali and African Union authorities to avoid repeating past laws of war violations and promptly and appropriately respond to civilian loss.”

HRW said past American operations in Somalia had not only resulted in loss of life and Somali property, but that the US had neither recognized these losses nor provided redress.

US military activities have been conducted in Somalia since at least 2007, but 2017 witnessed a marked increase in airstrikes before the Trump administration ordered the troop withdrawals in late 2020.

Somalia’s new President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud welcomed the news that some 500 US troops would be returning, with HRW saying Al-Shabab has continued to conduct indiscriminate and targeted attacks on civilians and forcibly recruited children.

Nonetheless, Bader said the return of US military personnel must include a course correction that ensures it takes all allegations of civilian harm seriously and credibly investigates them.

“A culture of impunity for civilian loss breeds resentment and mistrust among the population and undermines efforts to build a more rights-respecting state,” she added.

“The US government recognizes the need to credibly investigate and compensate for civilian harm, but the military has yet to make this a reality.”


Iran arrests prominent activists on ‘baseless accusations’: HRW

Iran arrests prominent activists on ‘baseless accusations’: HRW
Updated 20 May 2022

Iran arrests prominent activists on ‘baseless accusations’: HRW

Iran arrests prominent activists on ‘baseless accusations’: HRW
  • This is ‘another desperate attempt to silence support for growing popular social movements’
  • Country rocked by ongoing labor strikes, protests over rising pric

LONDON: Iran has arrested several prominent activists on what Human Rights Watch described on Friday as “baseless accusations” amid ongoing labor strikes and protests over rising prices.

Citing news outlets close to Iran’s intelligence apparatus, HRW said the arrested are accused of “contact with suspicious foreign actors,” although no evidence was provided to back the claim bar the assertion by authorities that they had arrested two Europeans earlier this month.

“The arrests of prominent members of civil society in Iran on baseless accusations of malicious foreign interference is another desperate attempt to silence support for growing popular social movements in the country,” said Tara Sepehri Far, senior Iran researcher at HRW.

“Instead of looking to civil society for help in understanding and responding to social problems, Iran’s government treats them as an inherent threat.”

Since May 6, people have gathered in at least 19 cities and towns to protest the news that Iran will experience price-rises for essential goods in the coming months, with MPs saying at least two people have been killed in the protests so far.

In the last week of April, dozens of teachers’ union activists were arrested after calling for nationwide protests to demand reforms of the pay scale system.

HRW said over the past four years there has been a spike in widespread protests in Iran, organized by major unions, over economic inequalities stemming from declining living standards.

It added that security forces have responded to protests with excessive, lethal force, and have arrested thousands, using prosecution and imprisonment based on illegitimate charges as the main tool to silence prominent dissidents and human rights defenders.

Since these latest protests kicked off at the start of May, authorities have heavily disrupted internet access in multiple provinces.

“Iranian authorities have long sought to criminalize solidarity among members of civil society groups inside and outside the country,” said Sepehri Far.

“The intention is to prevent accountability and scrutiny of state actions that civil society provides.”


Yemen’s defense minister discusses bilateral cooperation with US, UK military attachés 

Yemen’s defense minister discusses bilateral cooperation with US, UK military attachés 
Updated 20 May 2022

Yemen’s defense minister discusses bilateral cooperation with US, UK military attachés 

Yemen’s defense minister discusses bilateral cooperation with US, UK military attachés 
  • Al-Maqashi highly praised the US administration's efforts to establish peace in Yemen and its support for the government

DUBAI: Yemen’s minister of Defense, Mohammed al-Maqdashi, met with Colonel Mark Rittman, American Military and Security Attaché in the country’s US embassy on Thursday. 

The two discussed ways they can fight terrorism, in addition to military and security cooperation between the two nations. 

Al-Maqashi highly praised the US administration's efforts to establish peace in Yemen and its support for the government. 

Separately, Al-Maqashi met with the British Military Attaché in the UN embassy in Yemen to discuss bilateral cooperation between the two countries in the field of defense.


Russian, Emirati officials look to enhance ‘strong ties’

Russian, Emirati officials look to enhance ‘strong ties’
Updated 20 May 2022

Russian, Emirati officials look to enhance ‘strong ties’

Russian, Emirati officials look to enhance ‘strong ties’
  • The two sides discussed ways “to better serve the interests of their people”

DUBAI: UAE and Russian officials met on Thursday to discuss ways to enhance “strong ties” between the two countries, state news agency WAM reported. 

Chairman of Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Abdullah Mohamed Al-Mazrouei, held meetings with Chairman of the Russian-Emirati inter-parliamentary Group, Аrsen Bashirovich Kanokov, in Abu Dhabi. 

During the meeting, which was also attended by Mohamed Helal Al Mheiri, Director-General of Abu Dhabi Chamber, the two sides discussed ways “to better serve the interests of their people,” according to WAM.

Al-Mazrouei highlighted that both the UAE and Russia possess the necessary capabilities to strengthen relations in areas such as trade, artificial intelligence and innovation. 

Kanokov expressed Russia’s keenness to enhance relations with the UAE in addition to strengthening ties between the business community in Abu Dhabi and Russia. He added that the goal is to build on what has been accomplished between the two sides over the years.

Kanokov also extended his condolences on the passing of the late Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, and congratulated Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan for being elected as UAE President.