Last Updated Sat, 24 Dec 2005 20:52:15 EST
Israel's top Roman Catholic has said Bethlehem has become an "immense prison" since the West Bank barrier was built, calling for its dismantling as he joined thousands of pilgrims for midnight mass on Christmas Eve.
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Michel Sabbah stands at the altar during the Christmas Midnight Mass in St. Catherine's Catholic Church in Bethlehem early Sunday. (AP Photo)
Rev. Michel Sabbah, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, made the comments on Saturday after leading a procession from the Israeli capital to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus Christ.
It marked the first Christmas that the town has been cut off from Jerusalem by a newly competed eight-metre-high concrete wall, part of the barrier that Israel has built between itself and the West Bank.
The pilgrims had to pass through a military checkpoint to enter Bethlehem.
"This wall must not exist. One day it will not exist," Sabbah told Israeli Radio after he passed through a military checkpoint into Bethlehem.
He said the barrier – which Israel says it erected to curb suicide bombings and Palestinians say is a land grab – has turned the town into an "immense prison."
"Nobody needs checkpoints in the Holy Land," he said, according to Israel Radio.
Sabbah said the Palestinians should have the right to live freely in their own state, while also stressing that Israelis have the right to be safe.
He said the people wielding power had to realize that they couldn't rule through violence but only by "winning the hearts of Palestinians and Israelis."
Bethlehem expects big jump in pilgrims
Sabbah made the comments leading the traditional Christmas Eve midnight mass at the Church of the Nativity, built over the grotto where Jesus is said to have been born.
The chapel was packed on Saturday with worshippers, including Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Bethlehem Mayor Victor Batarseh said the city was expecting 30,000 visitors on the weekend, a sharp jump over the last few years.
Hundreds of Christians gather at the St. Catherine's Catholic Church in Bethlehem early Sunday. (AP Photo)
More than 100,000 people used to pack the town every Christmas, but pilgrimage dropped to a trickle after the second Palestinian intefadeh, or uprising, began in 2000.
Batarseh said the number was expected to swell again in 2005 because people were encouraged by a ceasefire forged 10 months ago by Israeli and Palestinian Authority leaders.
Israel, which began building the separation barrier in the summer of 2002, says it is a defensive measure that it credits with a drastic reduction in Palestinian suicide bombings.
Palestinians accuse of Israel of grabbing West Bank land in order to establish a de facto border before a peace deal is negotiated.
The barrier has also raised international criticism, including from the International Court of Justice in the Hague, which has said the barrier is illegal wherever it crosses over boundaries that existed before the Six-Day War in 1967.
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