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UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing in Arabic).
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
That is "Joy To The World" being sung in Arabic at a Christmas prayer service in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus.
NOEL KING, HOST:
This year in Bethlehem, Christmas celebrations were tinged with anger after President Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Palestinians, of course, also have claims in Jerusalem. Vice President Mike Pence was supposed to visit Bethlehem before Christmas, but after Trump's announcement Palestinian officials said he wasn't welcome.
GREENE: Let's turn now to Bethlehem and NPR's Daniel Estrin. Good morning, Daniel.
DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Good morning.
GREENE: So I know usually there are these big celebrations in downtown Bethlehem next to the church that marks the spot where tradition says Jesus was born. It sounds that - like the feel of it has been very different this year, though.
ESTRIN: Two things put a damper on Christmas this year - the weather and politics. The weather because it got really cold and started pouring rain, and tourists and Palestinians and cotton candy vendors ran to seek cover. But there were also fewer visitors for Christmas this year. They were scared away. There were clashes in Bethlehem between Palestinian youth and Israeli troops in the last few weeks right outside Bethlehem's fanciest hotel. And the hotel had two-thirds of its guests cancel their bookings. And the city scaled down its celebrations because of Trump's decision.
GREENE: Well, I mean, Bethlehem becomes such a focal point on Christmas. And it's a time in the past when Palestinian leaders have tried to get their message out to the world. So what are they saying this year?
ESTRIN: Well, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas released a Christmas message. He said he would reject the peace proposal that President Trump has promised he will soon present. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that's proof that, quote, "it is the Palestinians who do not want to resolve this conflict." The Trump administration has said the Palestinians need a cooling-off period. They seem to believe the Palestinians will be back to working with the U.S. on peace. So we will have to see if Palestinian officials will meet with Vice President Pence, who's supposed to come here next month.
But, David, this is a time of great uncertainty for Palestinians. If Abbas really is rejecting the U.S. as a peace mediator, you know, then what? And there have also been almost daily clashes with Israeli troops with some Palestinians killed, many wounded. So there are people here who are really apprehensive. I met a Palestinian woman, Najwa Raheb, at a Christmas Eve prayer service in Bethlehem yesterday. Here's what she said.
NAJWA RAHEB: I hope that peace will take place and we will not have another - problems in the area, another uprising.
ESTRIN: And by uprising she's meaning a Palestinian intifada, an intense period of violence.
GREENE: Yeah, so people having those fears right now. And let me just ask you - a lot of countries, Daniel, upset over President Trump's decision. But Guatemala says it is going to move its embassy to Jerusalem. So is Trump's decision on Jerusalem tipping the scales in some way? Are we going to see more countries doing this?
ESTRIN: Well, Netanyahu says we will. Just the other day he said Israel was speaking to several countries about following Trump's lead. Guatamala says it will. But I wouldn't expect many more countries to do this because most countries voted at the U.N. last week to reject Trump's recognition of Jerusalem.
GREENE: NPR's Daniel Estrin reporting on this Christmas from Bethlehem. Daniel, thanks. We appreciate it.
ESTRIN: Sure thing.
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GREENE: All right, we're going to turn now to the Vatican, where Pope Francis will soon be giving his Christmas message.
KING: That's right. The pope celebrated Christmas Eve mass last night with around 10,000 people inside St. Peter's Basilica, and many more were watching on screens in the square outside. The pope's homily last night focused on some of the issues most important to him - migrants, refugees from war and the poor.
GREENE: And one person listening in was our colleague, NPR's Sylvia Poggioli, who is on the line from Rome. Hi, Sylvia.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Yeah, hi, David.
GREENE: So what exactly did we hear from the pope?
POGGIOLI: Well, he made clear references to contemporary issues in recounting the biblical story of how Mary and Joseph traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem to be registered in a census ordered by the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus.
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POPE POPE FRANCIS: (Speaking Italian).
POGGIOLI: He said, "so many footsteps are hidden in the footsteps of Joseph and Mary. We see the tracks of entire families forced to set out in our own day, millions of persons who do not choose to go away, but driven from their land leave behind their dear ones. For many, this departure can only have one name - survival." And referring to today's human traffickers he said, "surviving the Herods of today who, to impose their power and increase their wealth, see no problem in shedding innocent blood."
It's pretty clear he was referring to the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar, the thousands of migrants who have died at sea trying to reach Europe, as well as, you know, the growing anti-migrant chorus in Europe, especially in Austria, Poland and Hungary, and also in the United States.
GREENE: Well, this pope has not shied away from many of those crises around the world. And Pope Francis, I mean, he's incredibly popular right now among non-Catholics as well as Catholics. But is he encountering more opposition from within and within the church? And how much of a concern should that be for him?
POGGIOLI: Well, you know, some conservative Catholics have become increasingly vocal this year opposing one issue in particular - the pope's cautious opening to communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics. One group of theologians went so far to accuse him of outright heresy. But, you know, he's more or less ignored them. What's more worrisome for the pope is the grumbling within the Curia. That's the Vatican bureaucracy. They're very annoyed with his governing methods and his open criticism.
In 2014 in his Christmas greetings, he accused them of suffering from spiritual Alzheimer's. And in this year's greetings, he denounced the cancer of cliques and how Vatican bureaucrats can become corrupted by ambition and vanity.
Many in the Vatican believe this criticism that's so public is damaging because it reinforces on the outside a very negative image of the church. So even though Francis was elected with a mandate to reform many dysfunctional sectors of the Curia, he's encountering a lot of resistance within his own ranks.
GREENE: All right, NPR's Sylvia Poggioli talking to us from Rome. Sylvia, thanks.
POGGIOLI: Thank you.
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GREENE: And we're going to go finally now to Florida, where President Trump is celebrating this Christmas holiday.
KING: Yeah. Yesterday, he and the first lady talked to kids on the phone, which is part of an annual tradition in which NORAD tracks Santa's journey.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: So you want your grandma to get out of the hospital. Is that your - that's what your wish is? That is great. That's better than asking for some toy or something, right? That's much better, right?
KING: All right, so the president got into the Christmas spirit. But an international issue is rearing its head, and that is North Korea. Yesterday, North Korea called new U.N. sanctions against the country an act of war.
GREENE: And NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith is with us. Hey, Tam.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.
GREENE: OK, act of war. I mean, we've heard bellicose language from North Korea before, but that's certainly ominous. Any response from the White House?
KEITH: Not yet. Those sanctions were approved Friday in a unanimous vote of the U.N. Security Council. And I want to read a little bit more of this statement from North Korea that came through state media. They say, quote, "we define this sanctions resolution rigged by the U.S. and its followers as a grave infringement upon the sovereignty of our republic and as an act of war violating peace and stability in the Korean Peninsula and the region."
The statement goes on to say that if the U.S. wishes to live safely, the U.S. must learn to coexist with the country that has nuclear weapons, calling denuclearization a, quote, "pipe dream." That - denuclearization is still U.S. policy...
KEITH: ...And not considered a pipe dream. Since that statement came out, President Trump has tweeted several times, though not about North Korea. He tweeted about the big tax bill and also about the use of the phrase Merry Christmas.
GREENE: Use - and what did he say? What was he tweeting about Merry Christmas?
KEITH: It's back.
GREENE: It's back (laughter).
KEITH: Though it actually never went anywhere, but whatever. He says it's back.
GREENE: He's saying it's back and can be used. Well, he's also tweeting about Andrew McCabe, right? And this - he has spoken about him before. He's the FBI deputy director. Can you just remind us why President Trump was singling him out?
KEITH: Yeah, so McCabe was up on Capitol Hill last week testifying before three different committees for hours. Like, almost two whole days behind closed doors. The focus was on the Russia investigation as well as the Clinton email investigation, both of which McCabe oversaw as deputy director of the FBI. But the president's beef with him goes back to October of 2016, when he started talking about him in campaign speeches. And the president usually gets the facts on this wrong or off by a bit.
But the concern is that in 2015, McCabe's wife ran for state Senate in Virginia as a Democrat. She got some substantial campaign donations from organizations linked to Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, who is close to Hillary Clinton. Then in 2016, McCabe, after she had - his wife had lost, became deputy director of the FBI, overseeing all significant investigations, including Russia and Clinton's emails. And the president thinks that there's a conflict of interest there.
GREENE: And McCabe is going to be retiring soon, though, right? I mean, this might - the president might not be able to tweet at him in this current job much longer.
KEITH: Yeah. My colleagues at NPR who cover the Justice Department have previously reported that McCabe is eligible to retire with a full pension in March, and that it's likely he could take some accrued vacation time and be out of the building even sooner than that.
GREENE: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Tam, thanks. Enjoy the holiday.
KEITH: You, too.
(SOUNDBITE OF FREDDIE JOACHIM'S "KOOL IN THE SUMMER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.