Crowds gather in Bethlehem to celebrate Christmas

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 December, 2016, 12:45am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 December, 2016, 9:32am

Crowds gathered in Bethlehem for Christmas celebrations and a midnight mass service at the spot where Christians believe Jesus was born, with more visitors expected than in 2015 due to a drop in violence.

Dozens of Palestinians and tourists flocked to Manger Square, near the Church of the Nativity, built over the spot where tradition says the birth took place.

Some snapped selfies near the square’s giant Christmas tree and watched the annual scouts parade in the city, located a short drive from Jerusalem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

The scouts marched waving flags, banging drums and playing bagpipe music.

Palestinian security forces, deployed in areas leading up to the church and square, conducted searches of some people.

Christmas carols in Arabic rang out from speakers as peopled took photos and watched the parades.

Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, who will celebrate Bethlehem’s midnight mass later, was met with cheers from the crowds.

He heads the Roman Catholic Church in the Holy Land.

“It feels pretty awesome,” said Valeria, a 21-year-old from the US state of Wisconsin.

“This is my first Christmas away from home... but this is really amazing to be in Bethlehem.”

Ramzi Abu Khalil, who was wearing a red Santa hat, told AFP “this is Christ’s land, the land of peace.”

“We take pride in him. All Christians should come today to Bethlehem. This is a holy day for us and a day of pilgrimage.”

Celebrations in Bethlehem culminate with a midnight mass at the Church of the Nativity, which is built over a grotto where Jesus is believed to have been born.

Some 2,500 tickets are usually given out for the mass and those wishing to attend must register in advance. Attendees usually include Palestinian officials and foreign dignitaries.

Beyond that, tens of thousands of tourists are expected to visit sites including Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Nazareth over the holidays.

Israel’s tourism ministry said more than 120,000 visitors were expected in December, half of them Christians.

Palestinian officials said they were expecting more visitors than last year, with major hotels in Bethlehem booked.

A wave of violence and protests that erupted in October 2015 in Israel and the West Bank sharply reduced visitor numbers for last year’s Christmas celebrations.

assailants were killed by Israeli forces while others were shot dead during clashes and protests.

Meanwhile, the top Roman Catholic cleric in Israel, Rev Pierbattista Pizzaballa, said he was glad that “at least the military war” in the Syrian city of Aleppo was over and Christians there could celebrate Christmas “without fear.”

He said he hoped the people of Aleppo could “rebuild the city, not only the infrastructure but also the common relations that was a tradition over there”.

Syrian government forces took control of Aleppo earlier this month, ending four years of heavy fighting in the city.

In Iraq, hundreds of Iraqi Christians flocked to the northern town of Bartella, recently liberated from Islamic State, marking Christmas celebrations for the first time since 2013.

The town, once home to thousands of Assyrian Christians, was abandoned in August 2014 as Islamic State led a military blitz that eventually took control of large sectors of Iraq and neighbouring Syria.

The town was brought back under Iraqi control following a US-backed offensive led by the Iraqi forces that began in October.

A procession of worshipers holding candles made their way into the town’s Shimoni church, expressing their joy at returning, although it tinged with sadness over the desecration of church

“This is the best day of my life. Sometimes I thought it would never come,” said Shurook Tawfiq, a 32-year-old housewife displaced to the nearby Kurdish city of Erbil.

During Islamic State’s time in control, the church was badly damaged, as crosses were taken down, statues of saints defaced and the chancel burnt.