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Thursday, December 23, 2004

Jerusalem Distributes Free Christmas Trees to Christians

The city of Jerusalem distributed free Christmas trees to Christians on Thursday as part of a longstanding tradition.

For decades, Israel has distributed the trees free of charge, particularly to the ex-patriot community of Christian leaders, journalists, diplomats and others.

One observer quipped that the Jewish State is probably the only country in the world that gives away free Christmas trees to Christians.

It is "symbolic of the way Jerusalem unites all three monotheistic religions," said Jerusalem municipality spokesman Gideon Schmerling in a statement.

The trees are donated by the Jewish National Fund, which is the country's forestry agency.

"Every year we distribute about 1,200 Christmas trees to religious leaders from different churches, diplomats, U.N. representatives, U.N. peacekeepers and the foreign press," said Paul Ginsberg, head of the forestry department of northern Israel.

"We also make trees available for sale for the Christian Arab population," Ginsberg told the Cybercast News Service. Between one thousand and fifteen hundred trees are sold each year.

"Because we're the only official forestry agency in Israel, we feel responsible to sections of the population to provide them with a service they require," he said.

According to Ginsberg, the most popular variety is the Arizona Cyprus, which looks the closest to a "normal Christmas tree," has a fairly dense number of branches and a greenish-gray color.

Most trees are four to six feet tall, although special-order trees are larger. They are harvested as part of the regular process of thinning out the forests.

"We do our best not only to plant trees for future need [but also to make sure they are] the right size," he added.

Foresting the land

Founded in 1901, the Jewish National Fund is a non-governmental organization that has been working to forest the land here for one hundred years - starting more than 40 years before the State of Israel was established.

"The land of Israel was in a fairly degraded state through a history of overgrazing and over-cutting," Ginsberg said.

During World War I, the Ottoman Turkish rulers of the land cut down many trees to use to build the Hajaz railway, which stretched from Egypt through the Holy Land and Lebanon into Turkey, he added.

Since its founding, the JNF has planted 220 million trees nationwide -- some 300,000-320,000 acres of planted forest, Ginsberg said -- and "all planted by hand."

The JNF plants a "very large variety" of trees, including pine, cypress, cedars and eucalyptus, as well as native trees such as oak, pistachio, red bud, carob, bay laurel, olive, almond, pomegranate and something known as Christ thorn, called as such because it is believed that it was used to plait the crown of thorns placed on Jesus' head, said Ginsberg.