ISRAEL PROMISES FREE ACCESS TO BETHLEHEM FOR CHRISTMAS

ROME, Dec 13, 02 (CWNews.com) -- Responding to a request from Pope John Paul II, the government of Israel has promised open access to Bethlehem for Christmas celebrations.

Israeli President Moshe Katsav, who met with the Pontiff on Thursday, has said that his country's troops will move out of the city, as long as the government is confident that there is no danger of terrorist activity. The Israeli embassy in Rome released a statement saying that the government would "will do everything possible to enable pilgrims to celebrate the festivities, as appropriate."

Israel's president promised the pope during a meeting Thursday that the army will redeploy outside the pilgrim city of Bethlehem during Christmas if there are no warnings of terrorist attacks, the Israeli embassy said the government "will do everything possible to enable pilgrims to celebrate the festivities, as appropriate."

The Israeli military is current patrolling the streets of Bethlehem, including the famous Manger Square and the Nativity basilica of the where the traditional Christmas celebration takes place. The city has been battered by episodes of violence this year, including a dramatic confrontation in which Palestinian soldiers sought refuge inside the basilica from the occupying Israeli troops, prompting a long siege.

The Israel government is holding to its position that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat should not visit Bethlehem during the Christmas celebration. Arafat, whose wife is Christian, has made it his practice to attend the midnight Mass of Christmas there.