Crowds pack Bethlehem for Christmas
Thousands of Christian pilgrims from around the world packed Bethlehem for Christmas Eve celebrations, bringing warm holiday cheer to the biblical birthplace of Jesus on a cool, clear night.
The heavy turnout, the highest in years, helped lift spirits in the West Bank town as leaders expressed hope that the coming year would finally bring the Palestinians an independent state of their own.
"The message of Christmas is a message of peace, love and brotherhood. We have to be brothers with each other," said Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal, the senior Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land, as he arrived in town.
Excited tourists milled about the town's Manger Square, stopping in restaurants and souvenir shops and admiring a large, illuminated Christmas Tree.
Marching bands and scout troops performed for the visitors in the streets, and on a stage next to the tree.
Will Green of New York City, along with his wife, Debbie, and their two-year-old daughter Daphne were among the crowds, and he said being in Bethlehem for Christmas was a dream come true.
"All the stories that we grew up with. It's here. It's part of our life. We heard them in the family, school and church. This is the birthplace," he said.
Palestinian dignitaries greeted Mr Twal at the entrance of Bethlehem. His motorcade crawled through the town's narrow streets as he stopped to shake hands and greet the throngs of visitors.
It took him nearly 90 minutes to make the short trip to celebrate Midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity compound.
Hundreds of people packed the compound for the service. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the EU's foreign policy chief, Baroness Ashton, and Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh were among the dignitaries in attendance.
In his homily, Mr Twal addressed Mr Abbas, telling the president he prays for a "just and equitable solution" for the Palestinians.
Mr Twal, himself a Palestinian, also expressed sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians, particularly families with relatives imprisoned by Israel or those who have suffered as a result of the conflict with Israel.
"The world is living through a long night of wars, destruction, fear, hate, racism and, at the present time, cold and snow," he said.
Lamenting strife in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, he also urged worshippers "not to forget our own problems here: the prisoners and their families who hope for their release, the poor who have lost their land and their homes demolished, families waiting to be reunited, those out of work and all who suffer from the economic crisis".
But he called on people not to despair: "We are invited to be optimistic and to renew our faith that this land, home of the three monotheistic religions, will one day become a haven of peace for all people."
The number of visitors to Bethlehem remained below the record levels of the late 1990s, when Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts were at their height.
Following a Palestinian uprising that began in 2000, the numbers plunged. But thanks to a period of relative calm, they have been steadily climbing in recent years -- and got an extra push this year thanks to the resumption of peace talks.
"Our message is a message of justice and peace," said Palestinian Tourism Minister Rula Maayah. "We Palestinians are seeking peace and we deserve to have peace and our children deserve to live in peace."
He said the number of visitors to Bethlehem was expected to jump by about 14% from last year.
A spokesman said 10,000 foreign visitors had entered town by the early evening, slightly higher than last year. Israel's Tourism Ministry, which co-ordinates the visits with the Palestinians, said the number could reach 25,000 during the holiday season.
Despite the Christmas cheer, Middle East politics loomed in the background. Few Palestinians seem to think the current round of peace talks will bear fruit.
US Secretary of State John Kerry relaunched the negotiations last summer, but there have been no signs of progress.
Israel carried out a series of airstrikes and other attacks yesterday in the Gaza Strip in retaliation for the fatal shooting of an Israeli civilian who had been working along the border.
The fighting, which left a three-year-old Palestinian girl dead, was the heaviest in more than a year.
Christmas also serves as a reminder of the dwindling numbers of Christians who live in the Holy Land.
Over the decades, tens of thousands of Christians have left, fleeing violence or in search of better opportunities overseas. Christians now make up a tiny percentage of the population.
Bethlehem is now only one-third Christian, with most residents Muslim. In an annual gesture, Israel permitted some 500 members of Gaza's small Christian community to leave the Hamas-ruled territory and cross through Israel to attend the celebrations in Bethlehem.
But for one night at least, residents and visitors brushed aside their troubles to celebrate the holiday.
Nick Parker, a student from Georgia Tech University in the US, said he was enjoying the food and making friends with local residents and fellow travellers.
"It's special to be here where Jesus was born," he said. "It's a special opportunity, once in a lifetime."