Bethlehem hosts Christmas services
Thousands of Christians from the world over have packed Manger Square in Bethlehem 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 Christmas Eve celebrations eased by the United Nations' recent recognition of an independent state of Palestine.
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.
"From this holy place, I invite politicians and men of good will to work with determination for peace and reconciliation that encompasses Palestine and Israel in the midst of all the suffering in the Middle East," said the top Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land, Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal in his annual address. "Please continue to fight for a just cause to achieve peace and security for the people of the Holy Land."
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 UN recognised their state last month in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
Mr 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.
Hundreds of people greeted Mr 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 Christmas tree, took on a festival atmosphere, as pilgrims mixed with locals.
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.
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.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas also visited Bethlehem and said "peace will prevail from the birthplace of Jesus, and we wish everyone peace and happiness", according to the official Palestinian Wafa news agency.