Shadow Holiday Festivities
By NICOLE WINFIELD, Associated Press Writer
ROME - From the walls
of Vatican (news - web sites) City to Bethlehem's Manger Square
and beyond, the world celebrated Christmas amid terror warnings
and Mideast violence that underscored Pope John Paul (news - web
sites) II's latest appeal for peace
U.S. troops in Saddam Hussein (news - web sites)'s hometown of
Tikrit paused in their patrols Thursday to mark the holiday with
sliced turkey, cranberry sauce and apple pie. Their colleagues
in Afghanistan (news - web sites) sang Christmas carols and dressed
as Santas and elves in a parade of decorated jeeps and Humvees.
"Of course it bothers me that I'm away from my family. But
I'm doing good work so it doesn't bother me so much," said
Sgt. Jay Coniglia, a 10th Mountain Division soldier from Rochester,
N.Y., as he manned the gate at the main U.S. base in Afghanistan
"I have no idea how many more Christmases we'll be here —
as many as it takes," he said.
The Christmas mood was a bit more gloomy in the West Bank town
of Bethlehem, where Filipino workers bused in from Israel were
virtually the only foreigners attending English-language Masses
in the traditional birthplace of Jesus.
Three years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting have kept thousands
of tourists and pilgrims away, and dampened spirits of Palestinian
residents who relied on tourism for their livelihoods.
And the violence continued Thursday: A suicide bombing near a
bus stop outside Tel Aviv killed four bystanders in the first
such attack in more than two months. In Gaza City, an Israeli
helicopter fired two missiles at a car, killing a senior Islamic
militant and four other people.
As Thursday wore on, though, residents of Bethlehem got into the
Christmas mood by donning Santa outfits, carrying Mickey Mouse
balloons and eating pink cotton candy in a festive holiday parade.
The pope turned his thoughts to Israelis and Palestinians during
his traditional Christmas Day greeting, as well as the "great
evils" of war and terrorism afflicting mankind at the start
of the third millennium.
"Save us from the wars and armed conflicts which lay waste
whole areas of the world, from the scourge of terrorism and from
the many forms of violence which assail the weak and the vulnerable,"
John Paul said to thousands of people gathered in St. Peter's
Square under a brilliant sun.
"Save us from discouragement as we face the paths to peace,
difficult paths indeed, yet possible and therefore necessary,"
he said, his voice strong despite having celebrated a lengthy
Midnight Mass just hours earlier.
He stressed it was particularly urgent to follow such paths to
peace in the Middle East.
Security around the Vatican was particularly tight this year,
amid reports that churches could become terrorist targets. Clusters
of police lined the main boulevard leading to St. Peter's on Thursday
morning, and the faithful attending Midnight Mass had to pass
through metal detectors.
Intelligence warnings of possible terrorist plots also prompted
the cancellation of six Air France flights between Los Angeles
and Paris. The cancellations added to holiday tensions already
high since President Bush (news - web sites) raised the national
terror alert level to orange, the second highest level, last Sunday.
Violence, meanwhile, continued in Iraq (news - web sites), with
anti-U.S. forces unleashing a string of grenade, rocket and mortar
attacks across Baghdad. The Ishtar Sheraton Hotel, where many
foreigners live, the Iranian and Turkish embassies, banks and
the gates of a U.S. army base were targeted, although only one
person was injured.
"I guess they think security's going to be downgraded because
of the holiday," Army Lt. Kurt Muniz of New York City said
after the hotel attack. "If they want to bring it, I say
bring it on."
Outside the war zones, though, Christmas went off relatively without
Thousands of Christians in mostly Hindu India decorated their
homes, dressed as Santas and flocked to five-star hotels for parties
— despite fears of violence raised by anti-Christian pamphlets
distributed in western Gujarat state, which has been plagued by
religious violence this past week.
World leaders issued their traditional greetings: Queen Elizabeth
II (news - web sites) paid tribute to British troops who took
part in the Iraq war, while Swedish King Carl XVI Gustaf praised
Foreign Minister Anna Lindh as a role model. Lindh was fatally
stabbed Sept. 10.
And in Puerto Rico, the centuries-old tradition of the Christmas
parranda continued, with revelers bursting into homes around midnight
to sing Christmas carols and play music on maracas and gourds
in exchange for food and drink. While the tradition has waned
in recent years because of high crime, some parties still went
off without a hitch.
"This is the best parranda in San Juan," said Charles
Juhasz, whose home was targeted this year. "They come and