Religious Leaders Slam Israel for Arafat Bethlehem Ban
Dec. 24, 2001

RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - Christian and Muslim religious leaders in the Middle East slammed Israel Monday for banning Palestinian President Yasser Arafat (news - web sites) from making his annual Christmas pilgrimage to Bethlehem.

``The Israeli decision is a grave prejudice and it restricts freedom of worship not only for President Arafat but also for all of the Palestinian people,'' Atallah Hanna, spokesman for the Greek Orthodox church, told a news conference in the West Bank town of Ramallah after meeting Arafat with other clerics.

The Roman Catholic church also condemned the ban, with a Vatican (news - web sites) spokesman saying in Rome that papal diplomats had tried to persuade Israel to relent and let Arafat attend a midnight Christmas mass in Palestinian-ruled Bethlehem Monday night.

Israel said Sunday it was barring Arafat's journey to Bethlehem, through roads sealed off by Israeli tanks and troops in the West Bank, because he had failed to rein in militants or arrest gunmen who killed an Israeli cabinet minister in October.

Palestinian Chief Justice Sheikh Taysir al-Tamimi, who is also a Muslim cleric, told the Ramallah news conference that Israel's decision was ``an assault on people's right to worship and movement on their land.''

Since Bethlehem came under Palestinian rule in 1995, Arafat has attended the annual mass in the Church of the Nativity, built on the spot where Christians believe Jesus was born.

A statement issued by Christian leaders in the West Bank said: ``As we commemorate the birth of Jesus, we urge peace lovers in the world to pressure Israel to review its unjust and arbitrary decision.''

Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, the first Palestinian to serve as the Roman Catholic church's senior representative in the Holy Land, led the delegation of clergymen in solidarity to Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah.

``The dignity of the president of the Palestinian people is the dignity of every Palestinian Muslim and Christian,'' said Sabbah, an outspoken advocate of Palestinian rights.

Arafat told reporters after the meeting: ``We send our message to the whole world that no one can humiliate the Palestinian people.''

In Rome, chief Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said: ``In order to try to create a more conciliatory climate in the area, the Secretariat of State has taken a diplomatic step to try to avoid this ban, which was arbitrarily imposed.''

Vatican sources said the Holy See was irritated with Israel for not allowing someone to attend a religious service on one of the holiest days of the Christian calendar.