West Bank Town Unites For a Christian Day

Greek Orthodox, Protestant, and Roman Catholic faithful join to celebrate a 'historic' Easter

IN the shadow of Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, members of various Christian churches joined together for the first time this weekend to celebrate Easter.

''This is a historic day,'' said Hanna Atrash, the Mayor of Beit Sahour, the only town on the West Bank where Christians outnumber Muslims.

Of the 16,000 inhabitants of Beit Sahour, about 13,000 are Christians belonging to the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant churches.

''It is different from all other Easters because, for the first time, the Christian churches have taken a local initiative to cooperate in celebrating Easter together,'' said Mr. Atrash, a member of the Greek Orthodox Church and mayor since 1976.

For centuries, Easter and Christmas have been celebrated on different dates by the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches, which follow different calendars.

But this year, as a result of protracted negotiations between church leaders in the town, the Roman Catholics and Protestants agreed to delay the celebration of the traditional Christian Easter by a week and join the festivities of the Greek Orthodox Church to which most of the 42,000 Palestinian Christians on the West Bank belong.

''We have been calling for this for a long time,'' says George Awwad, an engineer working on a project to upgrade the town's sewage system and water supply.

But the show of Christian unity in Beit Sahour contrasted sharply with the more chaotic scene at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, where Easter is still celebrated separately by Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, and Armenians.

Here, scuffles broke out between Israeli police and youths, who were among tens of thousands of Egyptian Copts and Greek Orthodox pilgrims visiting the holy site where Jesus is said to have been crucified, buried, and resurrected.

The Beit Sahour experiment was confined to this town and the West Bank towns of Ramallah and Beit Jallah. In line with the agreement, the Greek Orthodox Church will celebrate next Christmas on Dec. 25 instead of Jan. 7, the date of the oriental Christmas.

''It has been hard work,'' said Michael Abu Aita, chairman of the Arab Orthodox Club, the social wing of the Greek Orthodox Church.

''We were working right until the last moment. But I am really happy we have succeeded,'' he said in an interview while attending the first joint reception for the Christian churches in the Mayor's office Saturday.

But the first experiment in Christian unity was not without its hitches.

The starting time was delayed for an hour because the Greek Orthodox Church follows a different time. And there were some chaotic scenes when the leaders of the Greek Orthodox Church argued with organizers about the order of the procession.

But the ebullient mood of the crowd overshadowed any differences between the leaders of the various churches.

Clutching bundles of 33 candles, each representing a year in Jesus's life, the town's Christians sang hymns as they proceeded toward the Greek Orthodox Church. There they lit their candles from a holy flame carried from Jesus's tomb in Jerusalem, and handed out colored, hard-boiled eggs.

Members of the town's Muslim minority, accustomed to the huge influx of Christian pilgrims at Easter and Christmas, watched the colorful procession from the sidewalks and balconies overlooking the narrow, winding alley from the town's center to the Greek Orthodox Church.

''I am not sure that now is the right time to be fully united because we are still living under Israeli occupation,'' said Beit Sahour deputy Mayor Atala Rashmawi, a former member of the Communist Party and member of the Greek Orthodox Church.

''We must first unite to get rid of Israeli occupation, and then there must be a conference of all the churches,'' Mr. Rashmawi said.

''It is not enough to unite just for the festivals of Easter and Christmas.''

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