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Yasser Arafat is due to play the ghost of Christmas past once again at Midnight Mass in Bethlehem, his empty chair in the Church of the Nativity a symbol of the terrorism he has brought upon the region. For the third Christmas under the violence he has orchestrated, Israel has not lifted its siege of his battered Ramallah headquarters, effectively barring him from playing the role of benevolent ruler in a Palestinian Authority Christmas pageant in Bethlehem, a town he has done everything to rid of its Christian population.

Two years ago, in the weeks before Christmas, the PA chairman declared Jesus to be a Palestinian Muslim and staged a media spectacle over being forbidden to attend the Catholic Christmas mass by Israel. Arafat, a Muslim, would have gone to represent the governing power, since the town was now under Palestinian Authority control. But in response to his ongoing sponsorship of terrorism, Israel denied him the opportunity.

A year later, just to show the world who’s boss, Arafat decided to punish Israel – for reoccupying Bethlehem in response to yet another wave of terrorist attacks – by canceling Christmas. As he told reporters in Ramallah, the IDF’s decision to declare Bethlehem a closed military zone until the end of the year was a “crime.” Accordingly, Arafat decided to punish the Jewish state by canceling celebrations in honor of the birth of Jesus.

Palestinian terrorists have taken hostages many times before – and murdered them in cold blood – but this was the first time Arafat held the birthplace of Christianity hostage. And I’m ashamed to say, for the most part Christians were silent.

The situation as we approach this Christmas is unchanged. There will be the traditional procession by the Latin patriarch from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, and the Midnight Mass will be celebrated with all due pomp, but no outward festivities are planned. No illuminated giant tree in Manger Square, no carols by visiting choirs – practically no tourists at all.

And practically no Christians! About 35,000 Christians live in the West Bank and 3,000 in Gaza, or about 1.3 percent of the Palestinian population. Islam is the official religion of the Palestinian Authority, which has been Islamicizing Bethlehem since Arafat’s takeover in 1995. The area of Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Beit Sahur – predominantly Christian for centuries – has undergone a sinister transformation, as 60 percent of its Christian families have fled and Muslims, now 75 percent of the local population, have taken over.

“The Fatah and Arafat’s intelligence network intimidated and maltreated the Christian population in Bethlehem,” David Raab of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs quotes from a 2002 government intelligence report. “They extorted money from them, confiscated land and property, and left them to the mercy of street gangs and other criminal activity, with no protection.”

In December 1997, the London Times reported: “Life in [PA-ruled] Bethlehem has become insufferable for many members of the dwindling Christian minorities. Increasing Muslim-Christian tensions have left some Christians reluctant to celebrate Christmas in the town at the heart of the story of Christ’s birth.”

During his visit to Bethlehem in March 2000, Pope John Paul II felt it necessary to urge Palestinian Christians: “Do not be afraid to preserve your Christian heritage and Christian presence in Bethlehem.”

Beginning in April 2002, and lasting for 39 days, some 160 Palestinian gunmen occupied the Church of the Nativity and St. Mary’s Church and used them as firing positions against Israeli soldiers, expecting correctly that the Jewish troops would not fire at the shrines.

When Arafat made his debut Christmas appearance in Bethlehem in 1995, he addressed an overwhelmingly Muslim crowd in Manger Square under huge banners with his own picture and that of the late ‘Engineer,’ revered Hamas bomb-maker Yihye Ayyash. “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, goodwill towards men,” Arafat declared. “In spirit and blood we will redeem thee, O Palestine!” answered the crowd.

There is probably no clearer illustration of Arafat’s true Christmas message than the true story of a Palestinian baby who was born in Bethlehem in mid-November and whose birth was widely acclaimed by Palestinians as miraculous. Ala Ayyad was born on the 27th day of Ramadan, known as Lailat al-Kader, the night the Koran was revealed to Muhammad by God.

Thousands of Palestinians thronged to Bethlehem’s Aida refugee camp to pay him homage, because, in addition to the auspicious date, Ala was born with a large birthmark across his cheek that clearly spells out in Arabic letters the name of his uncle, Ala – a Hamas terrorist killed by the IDF eight months ago.

The family proudly told the Jerusalem Post (Dec. 1, 2003) they would raise the baby to follow in his uncle’s footsteps and lead a new generation of terrorists to fight against Israel. Cradling the infant in her arms, the baby’s grandmother, Aisheh, said the birthmark is a clear sign from God that her son’s death was not in vain.

“We will raise him to be good and pious like his uncle. Just as Mary received a sign from God that Jesus would be born to her in this holy place, so we have received a sign from God. This miracle shows that the martyrs who fall fighting for God do not die. It shows they live on in Paradise and that God is generous.”

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