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Jesus’s birthplace of Bethlehem agog for Christmas

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Filing past a 16-meter (52-ft) Christmas tree in Manger Square, visitors from all over the world made a Christmas Eve pilgrimage to Bethlehem, the town revered as the birthplace of Jesus. The Palestinian town in the Israeli-occupied West Bank is enjoying its busiest Christmas in years, with hotels nearly fully booked and the security situation relatively calm.

Lines of pilgrims squeezed through a narrow sandstone entrance to the Church of the Nativity to visit the grotto where Christian faithful believe Jesus was born. “This place is wonderful. I feel like the real Christmas (is celebrated) here,” said Joseph Ahlan, a pilgrim from Malaysia. Maria Moeva, a visitor from Bulgaria, said she could feel “all the passion of the people who are here to celebrate the birth of Christ”.

Pilgrims from across the world gathered in Bethlehem yesterday for Christmas Eve, queuing to see the grotto where Jesus is believed to have been born and taking in a festive parade. Midnight mass was to be held in Bethlehem later, while Pope Francis was also due to hold mass at the Vatican as Christians celebrate the traditional day of Jesus’s birth after a tumultuous year.

In Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank, the Palestinian scouts and a bagpipe band paraded in Manger Square across from the Church of the Nativity, built where Christians say Mary gave birth to Jesus. Crowds, some wearing Santa hats or holding balloons, looked on at the square decked out with a giant Christmas tree and a manger as carols in Arabic played through speakers. The Catholic archbishop for the Holy Land, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, arrived later in the afternoon and was to lead midnight mass.

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas was to be among dignitaries attending the ceremony. This year, visitors are able to view the Church of the Nativity’s newly restored mosaics after they were recently cleaned and repaired in a major project. The first church was built on the site in the fourth century, though it was replaced after a fire in the sixth century.

A newer and more spacious church, St. Catherine, is located next door. “It’s a great opportunity to be in such a symbolic location for Christmas,” said Lea Gudel, a 21-year-old French student studying in Jerusalem, who was in Manger Square on Monday morning.The acting Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, led an annual procession from Jerusalem to Bethlehem and will later celebrate Midnight Mass in the Church of the Nativity, originally built in the 4th century.

In Manger Square, visitors were entertained by choirs singing carols, bagpipe players and a Palestinian scouts’ marching band. While the security situation has eased since a wave of Palestinian knife and car-ramming attacks in 2015, Israeli roadblocks and a six-meter Israeli-built concrete separation barrier that snakes around the town are still part of the Bethlehem vista. Palestinians see the barrier as a land grab, in territory they are seeking as part of a state of their own. Israel, which captured the West Bank in a 1967 war, says the fences and walls it has erected help prevent Palestinian attacks.


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