Bethlehem message of peace on Christmas Eve

BETHLEHEM, Palestinian Territories - The Middle East’s senior Catholic cleric will call for peace and reconciliation on Friday in his Christmas Eve midnight mass homily to thousands of faithful in Bethlehem.

By (AFP)

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Published: Sat 25 Dec 2010, 1:56 AM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 6:58 AM

“During this Christmas season, may the sound of the bells of our churches drown the noise of weapons in our wounded Middle East,” Latin Patriarch Fuad Twal says in his message, made available ahead of the service.

“Our hope for Christmas is that Jerusalem not only become the capital of two nations, but also a model for the world, of harmony and coexistence of the three monotheistic religions.”

Twal’s address, to be given during midnight mass at St. Catherine’s Church on Manger Square, also alludes to the plight of Iraqi Christians, after a bloody October attack on a Baghdad church.

It calls for dialogue in the Middle East to overcome fundamentalism, and urges the faithful to reach out to their enemies in reconciliation.

Ahead of the mass, crowds of tourists and Palestinians in Bethlehem revelled in a festive mood, celebrating Christmas in the town where Christians believe Jesus was born.

In Manger Square, children clutched cartoon character balloons and enjoyed pink candyfloss while their parents photographed the fairy lights festooning trees and street lights.

On a large stage, musicians from the West Bank and abroad performed before a mostly Palestinian crowd that bought boiled corn-on-the-cob and cups of sweet Arabic coffee from dozens of vendors.

A record number of tourists and pilgrims have flocked into the occupied West Bank town in the past two years after nearly a decade dominated by fears of violence that left Bethlehem virtually deserted at Christmas.

Inside and outside the Church of the Nativity, a long line of pilgrims waited to enter the grotto where Mary is said to have given birth to Jesus Christ after she and Joseph could not find any room at the inn.

Next door, at St. Catherine’s Church where midnight mass will be celebrated, worshippers sat in the pews, some silently reflecting as others read the Bible or leafed through tourist guides.

Both Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas and prime minister Salam Fayyad arrived late on Friday in heavily guarded motorcades ahead of the mass, which they will attend.

Earlier, crowds lined Bethlehem’s Star Street and Manger Square to watch the traditional Christmas Eve procession that brought Twal into the town centre.

“It’s amazing. To be in the birthplace of Christ on Christmas, you can’t get better than that,” said Brady MacCarl, 22.

Charlene, an American from California who declined to give her last name, said it was a religious experience for her to be in Bethlehem on the day Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus.

“It’s a crazy experience and it’s probably one that will only happen once in our lives,” she told AFP.

Troupes of scouts from Christian towns and villages across the West Bank marched through the town playing bagpipes, but a group from Gaza was denied Israeli permission to come, Palestinian Authority officials said.

At least 90,000 people are expected to flood into Bethlehem over Christmas, according to Palestinian Authority estimates.

Bethlehem sits behind a major Israeli checkpoint and the controversial security wall.

But unlike in years past, when the spectre of unrest and violence kept tourists away and those who visited spent the night in Israel instead, Bethlehem’s 24 hotels were all fully booked.

The Christmas season will cap a year of unprecedented tourism for Bethlehem and the Palestinian territories, where visitor revenues are sorely needed.

Tens of thousands of Palestinians from the West Bank and Arab Israelis were also expected in Bethlehem, along with several hundred from the tiny Christian community in Gaza who were able to secure rare Israeli entry permits for the holiday.

Meanwhile, Israeli police and medics said three Italian pilgrims were killed and two others were seriously injured when their car crashed in northern Israel. Local media reported that all five were nuns.

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