Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Fiery expressions of nationalism and calls for jihad (holy war) replaced the traditional Christmas message of "peace on earth and goodwill toward men" in the Middle East this holiday season.
While little joy was found in Bethlehem, the biblical birthplace of Jesus, threats by Saddam Hussein and reports that he is still attempting to develop a nuclear bomb added to the general feeling of ill-will.
Celebrations in Bethlehem were muted by three months of violence and terrorism, which scared away most pilgrims and visitors. Bethlehem Mayor Hanna Nasser said only 400 visitors had entered the city on Christmas eve and Christmas Day, compared to 10,000 who came last year, when hopes were high for Middle East peace.
"It's a sad Christmas this year, because of the absence of peace in the city of peace and joy," Nasser said.
At Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, the Latin Patriarch (senior Roman Catholic cleric) of Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah, used his Christmas homily to promote Palestinian nationalism.
"This is our land, to claim our freedom, among our demolished houses and in our besieged towns and villages, Sabbah told an audience that included PA Chairman Yasser Arafat.
Sabbah was referring to Israel's shooting at the nearby town of Beit Jala in retaliation for attacks by Palestinian gunmen on homes in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo.
Arafat, a Muslim, has made it a practice to attend Christmas services to show solidarity between Muslim and Christian Palestinians. In an effort to cement that relationship, Palestinian leaders have identified Jesus, who was Jewish, as "a Palestinian" - and even on occasion, as a "Palestinian freedom fighter."
Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein took advantage of the holiday to call on Muslims and Christians around the world to declare a jihad against Israel and what he called the "Zionist conspiracy."
In his traditional Christmas message, published on the front page of every Baghdad newspaper, Saddam accused Israel of defiling Muslim and Christian holy sites and trying to destroy the Palestinians with the help of the U.S.
"Principles of Islam and the teachings of Jesus Christ make it imperative on us to take the road that satisfies God and our conscience ... that is the road of jihad," he said.
"Without jihad, we will not realize what we are hoping for in achieving peace and justice and saving humanity from the evils of the criminals, the murderers," he added.
London's Sunday Times, meanwhile, has reported that Saddam ordered his scientists two years ago to resume work on a plan to make a nuclear bomb. This occurred four months before he expelled United Nations weapons inspectors, according to a defector quoted in the Times.
Salman Yassin Zweir, a design engineer employed by the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission for 13 years, was reportedly arrested and tortured when he refused to return to the program. He managed to escape to Jordan after being admitted to a hospital as a result of beatings.
"Saddam is very proud of his nuclear team," 39-year-old Zweir was quoted as saying. "He will never give up the dream of being the first Arab leader to have a nuclear bomb."
The paper quoted a senior western diplomat as saying that Zweir's revelation was the "first concrete evidence of what we feared might be happening."
Iraq was between one and four years away from making an atom bomb when its primary facilities were destroyed in the 1991 Gulf war, according to estimates by U.N. inspectors. Saddam's plans for development, known as Project 3000, were further hindered by the arrival of U.N. inspectors after the war.
Secretary of State-designate Colin Powell is expected to use the Iraqi nuclear threat as a means to convince Europe to back the proposed National Missile Defense System.
The revelation comes on the heels of a claim by Iraqi Defense Minister Lt. General Sultan Hashem Ahmed, that his country could destroy Israel on the battlefield.
"Iraq can destroy Israel because it possesses a large combat experience in dealing with all possibilities," Ahmed was quoted as saying in an interview with the weekly Al-Zawraa newspaper to be published this week. He added that Iraq would be willing to send its troops to defend any Arab country threatened by Israel.
Ahmed said there has been no military coordination between Iraq and other Arab states regarding a potential confrontation with Israel, but added that several countries, including Syria, were satisfied with Baghdad's position on the Israeli-PA conflict.
Syria made its own Christmas offering to the Palestinian cause on state television.
A clip shows Father Christmas cheerfully ringing his bells on the way to Jerusalem when he is violently accosted by Israeli soldiers.
Santa returns to throw stones with Palestinian youths and dodges Israeli fire with them. The sequence ends with a picture of Jerusalem, captioned: "Uprising for Peace."