Sr Mary writes from Bethlehem as Advent begins

 Advent 2001 begins today, and although Advent and Christmas 2000 lacked all the normal preparations and celebrations in the Holy Land, this year things will be different. Last year the Christian population was strongly feeling the effects of and the aftermath of the bloodbath from the Al-Aksa Massacre and pilgrims for the Millennium simply did not come to Bethlehem; even internationals residing in Israel were refused entry into Bethlehem on Christmas day by the Israeli Occupation Force. This year, although Bethlehem and the surrounding towns were invaded in October and death and damage pervaded throughout these towns, this year the Christian population has refused to allow their occupiers to determine the celebration of the birth of God's Son. Beginning this first Sunday of Advent, 2 December, Manger Square will come alive with Advent preparations. Embassies from around the world have sent typical Christmas decorations from their countries and expatriates have baked typical Christmas foods from their Christian cultures for a Christmas Bazaar. Palestinians will have their handicrafts for sale, choirs from the local schools and from foreign countries will fill Manger Square with music and bands will play. All income from this Sunday will go to the Palestinians of the town. This is just the beginning of four weeks of Advent Sunday concerts and performing choirs to mark the approaching feast of the Incarnation. Special Advent feast days will also be celebrated, such as the feast of St. Lucy, when the Santa Lucia children from SIRA school in Beit Jala will process from their school to Manger Square. And, of course, just before Christmas, St Nicholas will appear to give each child a gift from Father Christmas. All these activities have been planned especially for the children by the Bethlehem Peace Centre and the dedicated work of its Chief Program Officer, Isabel de la Cruz. This Peace Centre was build where the Israeli police station used to be on the corner of what was then an eye-sore, black-topped parking lot directly in front of the Basilica of the Nativity. The space is now a beautiful limestone paved plaza with new trees and park benches around the edges, a fitting approach to this 4th century Basilica. We will be in that plaza this Sunday as we begin our Advent journey to Christmas. This year we will celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace who gives hope, comfort and peace to the suffering Christians of the area, to the traumatized children of Bethlehem. Only one thing can prevent us from beginning our Advent journey: the Israeli Occupation Force - which stands at roadblocks controlling every entry point into Bethlehem. For now we pray that we can join with our Christian brothers and sisters in Bethlehem and journey with them toward the celebration of the birth of God's Son, Jesus. In my next journal I hope to let you know that we began our Advent journey well. During your Advent preparations, please remember the Christian community of Bethlehem and the surrounding towns who are much in need of support. Without their presence here, under the most difficult and dangerous situations, the Basilica of the Nativity, which has already been hit with Israeli shelling, might not exist or would simply be turned into a museum.

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