Christmas in Bethlehem: Thousands descend on Manger Square to celebrate Nativity as holy city receives record tourism boostChristmas joy as hundreds follow colourful procession through ancient cityTop catholic cleric Fouad Twal says celebrations heightened by UN endorsement of PalestineCity packed with pilgrims from across the globe to mark the birth of their faithLocal Christians concerned that future celebrations will be disturbed by continuing violence
09:13 GMT, 25 December 2012
Christians from the world over packed Manger Square in Bethlehem Monday to celebrate the birth of Jesus in the ancient West Bank town where he was born.
For their Palestinian hosts, this holiday season was an especially joyous one, with the hardships of the Israeli occupation that so often clouded previous celebrations eased by the United Nations' recent recognition of an independent state of Palestine.
In his annual pre-Christmas homily, the top Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land, Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal, said the road to actual freedom was still long, but this year's festivities were doubly joyful, celebrating 'the birth of Christ our Lord and the birth of the state of Palestine.'
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Thousands of pilgrims flock to Manger Square, outside the Church of the Nativity, the site revered as the birthplace of Jesus
A 55-foot Christmas tree towers above the revelers outside the Church of the Nativity
Musicians perform on stage in Manger Square as the evening celebrations kick in
A pilgrim holds a candle and song text book in the 'Grotto', in the
Church of Nativity
A Palestinian vendor sells balloons and Christmas hats at the gathering in Manger Square
'The path (to statehood) remains long, and will require a united effort,' added Twal, a Palestinian citizen of Jordan, at the patriarchate's headquarters in Jerusalem's Old City.
Then he set off in a procession for the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Jesus' traditional birthplace. There, he was reminded that life on the ground for Palestinians has not changed since the U.N. recognized their state last month in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
Twal had to enter the biblical town through a massive metal gate in the barrier of towering concrete slabs Israel built between Jerusalem and Bethlehem during a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings in the last decade. The Israeli military, which controls the crossing, said it significantly eased restrictions for the Christmas season.
Israel, backed by the United States, opposed the statehood bid, saying it was a Palestinian ploy to bypass negotiations. Talks stalled four years ago.
Hundreds of people greeted Twal in Manger Square, outside the Church of Nativity. The mood was festive under sunny skies, with children dressed in holiday finery or in Santa costumes, and marching bands playing in the streets.
After nightfall, a packed Manger Square, resplendent with strings of lights, decorations and a 17-meter (55-foot) Christmas tree, took on a festival atmosphere.
.VIDEO. Tourists celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem with tattoos and music
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A Palestinian security officer stands guard as Christian worshippers and tourists celebrate at Manger Square
The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad Twal, center right, attends Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem
Fuad Twal, head of the Roman Catholic Church in the Palestinian territories, waves to worshipers upon his arrival at the Church of the Nativity
A choral group from the Baptist Church in Jerusalem performed carols on one side of the square, handing out sheets of lyrics and encouraging others to sing along with songs such as 'We Wish You A Merry Christmas.'
Festivities led up to the Midnight Mass at St. Catherine's Church, next to the fourth-century Church of the Nativity, built over the grotto where tradition says Jesus was born.
Devout Christians said it was a moving experience to be so close to the origins of their faith.
'It's a special feeling to be here, it's an encounter with my soul and God,' said Joanne Kurczewska, a professor at Warsaw University in Poland, who was visiting Bethlehem for a second time at Christmas.
Foud Twal holds the Baby Jesus at the end of the Christmas Midnight Mass as he and clergy visit and pray in the 'Grotto', where Christians believe Mary gave birth to Jesus Christ
Catholic nuns from the Sisters of Bethlehem pray during midnight mass to mark Christmas in the Beit Jamal Monastery near Jerusalem
A worshiper lights a candle, at the Church of the Nativity, as she attends the Christmas celebrations
Pastor Al Mucciarone, 61, from Short Hills, New Jersey, agreed.
'We come here to celebrate Jesus. This is a very important town. Great things come from small events. The son of God was born in this small village. We hope all will follow Jesus,' he said.
Audra Kasparian, 45, from Salt Lake City, Utah, called her visit to Bethlehem 'a life event to cherish forever. It is one of those events that is great to be a part of.'
Christmas is the high point of the year in Bethlehem, which, like the rest of the West Bank, is struggling to recover from the economic hard times that followed the violent Palestinian uprising against Israel that broke out in late 2000.
Tourists and pilgrims who were scared away by the fighting have been returning in larger numbers. Last year's Christmas Eve celebration produced the highest turnout in more than a decade, with some 100,000 visitors, including foreign workers and Arab Christians from Israel.
A member of the clergy holds a cross as he waits for the arrival of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad Twal outside the Church of the Nativity earlier in the day on Christmas Eve
Members of the clergy wait for the arrival Fouad Twal before the procession
Hundreds of Catholic clergymen gather for the biggest event of the year for Christian pilgrims
Nigerian pilgrims visit the Church of Nativity
A Nigerian pilgrim carries a child on her back on the visit to the Church of Nativity
Christmas Eve brought thousands of tourists and Christian Arabs to the streets of Bethlehem
The Israeli Tourism Ministry predicted a 25 percent drop from that level this year, following last month's clash between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza, which put a chill on tourist arrivals. Foreign tourists heading to Bethlehem must pass through Israel or the Israel-controlled border crossing into the West Bank from Jordan.
Outside the town's quaint Manger Square, Bethlehem is a drab, sprawling town with a dwindling Christian base.
Overall, there are only about 50,000 Christians in the West Bank, less than 3 percent of the population, the result of a lower birthrate and increased emigration. Bethlehem's Christians make up only a third of the town's residents, down from 75 percent a few decades ago.
Clergymen take part in the Christmas celebrations outside the Church of the Nativity
Catholic clergy make their way out of the Church of the Nativity during the day of celebration
Elias Joha, a 44-year-old Christian who runs a souvenir store, said even with the U.N. recognition, this year's celebrations were sad for him. He said most of his family has left, and that if he had the opportunity, he would do the same.
'These celebrations are not even for Christians because there are no Christians. It is going from bad to worse from all sides … we are not enjoying Christmas as before.'
Located on the southeastern outskirts of Jerusalem, Bethlehem has the highest unemployment in the West Bank, but the tourist boom of Christmas offered a brief reprieve. Officials say all 34 hotels in the town are fully booked for the Christmas season, including 13 new ones built this year.
A boy looks up at a Christmas tree during Christmas celebrations outside the Church of the Nativity
Israel turned Bethlehem over to Palestinian civil control a few days before Christmas in 1995, and since then, residents have been celebrating the holiday regardless of their religion. Many Muslims took part in celebration Monday as well.
Christians across the region marked the holiday.
In Iraq, Christians gathered for services with tight security, including at Baghdad's Our Lady of Salvation church, the scene of a brutal October 2010 attack that killed more than 50 worshippers and wounded scores more.
Earlier this month, Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, who is responsible for the Vatican's outreach to the Middle East's Catholic communities, traveled to Iraq and presided over a Mass to rededicate the church following renovations. In his homily, he remembered those who were killed and expressed hope that 'the tears shed in this sacred place become the good seed of communion and witness and bear much fruit,' according to an account by Vatican Radio.
The exact number of Christians remaining in Iraq is not known, but it has fallen sharply from as many as 1.4 million before the U.S.-led invasion nearly a decade ago to about 400,000 to 600,000, according community leaders cited by the US State Department.
Catholic priests attend Christmas celebrations in the West Bank town of Bethlehem