Bethlehem to issue own 'passport'

 The Mayor of Bethlehem is arriving in London today to declare Bethlehem an open city and announce that his city is to issue a Bethlehem passport, open to anyone in the world. The initiative is designed to draw attention to the fact that the city is now 'imprisoned' by the separation wall and militarised fences, with only two gates to the outside world. The Mayor is travelling with Leila Sansour, Chief Executive of the 'Open Bethlehem' campaign who will travel on to Washington to launch the passport in the States. "We recognise we have to act", says Dr Victor Batarseh, Mayor of Bethlehem. "The passport is a way to ask people to step up to the plate. Invest in Bethlehem, bring projects to the city, or come and live among us - and you can also be a Bethlehemite." Leila Sansour said: "The current situation is grim. The walls and fences that encircle Bethlehem have turned this 4000 year old city into a prison for its 160,000 citizens. The number of tourists visiting Bethlehem has dropped from nearly 92,000 in 2000 to a mere 7,249 in 2004. In the last five years 9.3 per cent of the Christian population of Bethlehem has emigrated. Restaurants, shops and commercial outlets have shrunk and Bethlehem's economy is threatened." The loss of Bethlehem to the world, she said, "would have a devastating effect on the cause of open democracy in the Middle East, on Christianity worldwide, and on the relationship between Christian nations and other countries." The Open Bethlehem initiative will issue the passport to friends of Bethlehem as part of a campaign to encourage trade partnerships, investment, tourism, events, and to attract creative opportunities to the city. The core of its message is that Bethlehem is a city of openness and diversity, with a centuries old tradition of welcoming travellers, refugees and pilgrims from across the world. Open Bethlehem already has the support of international figures such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former US President Jimmy Carter; the President of Palestine, Mahmoud Abbas, and the Archbishop of Jerusalem His Excellency Michel Sabah. Dr Desmond Tutu said: "It is unconscionable that Bethlehem should be allowed to die slowly from strangulation."

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