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Anger after Nazareth suburb bans Christmas tree

Dec. 23, 2010 5:45 A.M. (Updated: Feb. 17, 2011 9:46 A.M.)
By: George Hale

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (Ma'an) -- Christmas festivities in the Holy Land focus on the West Bank town of Bethlehem, where Christians believe Jesus was born and the Palestinian Authority hosts annual celebrations.

Israel's government highlights events in Nazareth, a predominantly Palestinian city in Israel where Jesus is believed to have spent much of his life growing up with his mother Mary and her husband Joseph.

But there will be no celebrations this year in a Jewish suburb of Nazareth, after its mayor sparked outrage by refusing to allow Christmas trees to be placed in town squares, calling them provocative.

Nazareth Illit, or Upper Nazareth, is adjacent to Nazareth. It has a sizable Palestinian Christian minority, as does mostly Muslim Nazareth itself.

"The request of the Arabs to put Christmas trees in the squares in the Arab quarter of Nazareth Illit is provocative," Mayor Shimon Gapso told Agence France-Presse.

"Nazareth Illit is a Jewish city and it will not happen -- not this year and not next year, so long as I am a mayor," he said Wednesday of the northern Israeli town.

"Nazareth is right next door and they can do what they want there," he said.

Gabso's decree sparked accusations of racism from the mayor of Nazareth proper.

"This is a racist decision," said Ramiz Jaraisy, Nazareth's mayor. "But it comes as no surprise, unfortunately, because this person is already well known for his racist views."

Reached by phone, Jaraisy told Ma'an that his counterpart "should respect the religious feelings and beliefs of everyone in Nazareth Illit, not just his own religion's."

In any case, Christians as well as Muslims in the suburb will ignore Gapso's dictates, Jaraisy said.

The decision has also angered the town's Palestinian and Christian minority, who said it highlighted larger concerns about equality in Israel, whose population is 20 percent Palestinian.

"The racism of not putting a tree up is nothing compared to the real racism that we experience here," said Aziz Dahdal, a 35-year-old Christian resident of Nazareth Illit.

"When we asked the mayor to put up a Christmas tree in the Arab neighborhoods of Nazareth Illit he said this is a Jewish town, not a mixed town," said Shukri Awawdeh, a Muslim member of the town council.

Awawdeh said there were 10,000 Arabs, most of them Christian, in the town and there was also a large community of Christian Russian immigrants.

"We told him that decorating a tree is just to share the happiness and cheer with other people in the town," said Awawdeh.

"People here, Jews, Christians and Muslims live in harmony, but when the mayor does something like that, it does not make things better."

Tel Aviv-based blogger Yuval Ben-Ami slammed the move, saying Gabso "has absolutely no clue what non-Jews around the world would feel when hearing that the mayor of a Nazareth suburb bans Christmas trees.

"He is the mayor who stole Christmas, the mayor of an ethnocentric town with a name that hints at superiority, who rejects a symbol of universal tolerance," he wrote Wednesday.

Ben-Ami noted that Christmas plans were moving forward in other Israeli cities like Haifa, where Mayor Yona Yahav allowed a large tree to be placed between its Jewish and Palestinian neighborhoods.

He says the initiative proves "that sharing the festive season is possible even in this troubled land."

AFP contributed to this report.
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