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In a dire holiday message, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Michel Sabbah said Wednesday that Bethlehem has become "a city of conflict and death" as a result of continuing political instability and violence in the region and Israeli counterterrorism measures.
"Bethlehem is meant to be a city of peace. Unfortunately it is now just the contrary, a city of conflict and death," Sabbah said in his annual Christmas message.
The top Catholic official in the region, who is a Palestinian, cited Israel's security barrier around the city, meant to thwart bombers from entering Israeli cities, as the chief cause of all evils, calling it an economic stranglehold that has severely restricted the Palestinians' freedom of movement in and out of the town.
"This year again Christmas is coming to Bethlehem and the same circumstances of death and frustration with the wall and the checkpoints on the ground and in [our] hearts," he said during a press conference at the Latin Patriarchate in the Old City of Jerusalem.
"The occupation and deprivation of freedom on one side, and fear and insecurity on the other continue as before," he added.
Sabbah, 73, who has served as the Latin Patriarch of
Jerusalem for nearly two decades, is frequently critical of Israel.
He pointedly played down the tense relations between Muslims and Christians in the city, saying only, in response to a question, that a "strong government" was needed to deal with all citizens equally, such as in neighboring Jordan.
Christians now make up a minority of 35 percent in the town of 30,000, as a continuing exodus of the more affluent Christians from the town of Jesus's traditional birthplace to Israel and the West continues.
The fallout from the political situation on the ground, including the growing strength of radical Islamic movements like Hamas, has turned once-bustling pilgrimage sites such as Bethlehem into relative ghost towns.
Before the outbreak of Palestinian violence in 2000, Bethlehem drew more than 90,000 pilgrims a month, but only 2,500 foreign visitors came last Christmas.
Meanwhile, Sabbah reiterated his harsh criticism of Evangelical Christian leaders in the Holy Land for their unequivocal support for Israel, noting that his recent public declaration that they were leading the world to Armageddon by their actions should be read in a "very mild" spirit.
"You love Israelis, that is fine, but you need to love Palestinians, too," he said.
A call for interfaith dialogue by the Evangelical leaders following the unprecedented public tiff between the Christian leaders in Israel has gone unheeded.
"We have a 26-year proven track record of genuine Christian charitable work for all people of the Holy Land," said David Parsons, spokesman for the International Christian Embassy, a Jerusalem-based Evangelical organization.