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BETHLEHEM (CNS) -- For the first time in 26 years, Lilian and Nadeem Aqleh had all six of their children with them to celebrate Christmas.
"This is the happiest day of my life," said Lilian, 70, who is Catholic, as she celebrated the holiday with her children and grandchildren, some of who traveled from the United States and Canada. "It is hard having your children so far away. I want my children with me. At Christmas we remember the birth of Christ and the meaning of Christmas is to share it with family."
Only two of the Aqlehs' children remain in the Bethlehem area. Like many Palestinian Christians, two of the Aqleh siblings went to the United States to study more than 20 years ago and stayed because of better opportunities available to them. A third sister went to Canada with her Egyptian husband for similar reasons.
A fourth sister married an Israeli Palestinian resident of Nazareth, Israel's largest Arab city in northern Israel. Although she can visit her parents, she and her husband need a special permit to enter the West Bank.
The last time they were together as a family was in 2001.
But as the Aqlehs' 50th wedding anniversary approached, their youngest daughter, Jane Aqleh Zelfo, 36, who lives near her parents, decided it was about time the family celebrated the holiday together once again. Her parents are getting older, and her father, 76, has had several heart surgeries, she said.
"I worked hard to make this happen," Zelfo explained as she put the final touches on the decorations for a catered dinner. "We deserve to be together. We love each other. We have a special relationship. These moments are so special and I want my family to be next to me. Our parents raised us well and always gave us what we needed. They deserve to see their kids all coming together."
The family had its main celebration on Christmas Eve and also marked the older couple's anniversary. Zelfo asked everyone to wear Christmas colors to add to the festive atmosphere.
Recalling their tradition of buying new clothes for their children before Christmas, they relished the sight of their grandchildren dressed in new matching red, white, black or wine-colored slacks and skirts.
"Christmas is not about where you are but who you are with and it is a special feeling to experience Christmas again as a family," said Michael Aqleh, 36, who flew from San Francisco where he owns a car dealership. "We probably won't be able to have an experience like this ever again. Life is too short to not have this celebration now."
The family enjoyed the parades and festivities at Manger Square Christmas Eve afternoon. In the evening the family gathered at their parents' home for their traditional barbecue dinner. Michael Aqleh and his brother Faris, 44, also living in San Francisco with his family, attempted to get into midnight Mass, but they were unable to do so.
Michael Aqleh had hoped that he would be able to visit Jerusalem but he said that as a Palestinian he was not permitted free access despite his American citizenship. The Israelis required that he have a special permit.
He recalled how in past Christmases the entire extended family of cousins and aunts and uncles celebrated together, visiting each other's homes and sharing meals. And there always was a visit from a friend or neighbor dressed as Santa Claus handing out gifts to the children.
"Most of my cousins are also spread out all over the place now," he said. "They are in U.S.A., Canada, Latin America, Europe."
Many of his friends also have left the area, he said, because that have found it difficult to deal with the challenging economic, political and social environment.
In recent decades the demographics of the Bethlehem-Beit Jalla-Beit Sahour triangle -- all traditionally Christian West Bank towns -- have changed as many Muslim villagers from the surrounding countryside moved into the area. Some Christians say they feel like a minority in Bethlehem, where some 80 percent of the population is now Muslim. Though relations remain largely cordial, some Christians and local Muslims say they feel the influx of villagers with more conservative traditions has changed the personality of their hometowns.
Zelfo and her younger brother, David Aqleh, 37, who also has remained near Bethlehem, said that despite the difficulties they do not have plans to leave -- at least for now.
"It is a wonderful feeling to have all my brothers and sisters come back here to celebrate all together. said David Aqleh, who runs his father's public service office translating documents and preparing passport applications. "It makes me feel stronger."
Zelfo expressed concern that life "is not easy" in Bethlehem and acknowledged that she feels "like the minority" in the community.
"But we have something nice here," she added. "God calls on us to stay here. He needs us here. We can always smile with Jesus as our shepherd, he is our joy and our strength. Without him we could not make it. Tonight we appreciate celebrating together."