Pilgrims celebrate amid tight security
Cool weather, lessened violence lift spirits of visitors
bethlehem, west bank » Thousands of pilgrims and tourists from around the world together with local Christians gathered in the biblical town of Bethlehem to celebrate Christmas eve in the traditional birthplace of Jesus, with spirits lifted by a slowdown in recent violence and cool, clear weather.
Security was tight in Bethlehem after recent deadly attacks on Christian targets in neighboring Egypt and Jordan by Islamic terrorists.
Yet the faithful braved the chilly weather outside the town’s Manger Square as traditional Christmas songs such as “Jingle Bells” played in Arabic over loudspeakers and scout groups paraded with bagpipes and sang carols. Elated tourists and local Christians alike wandered around the square illuminated by festive red and golden lights and a large Christmas tree, visiting souvenir shops and restaurants. Adding to the holiday spirit for the Palestinians, locals celebrated a key diplomatic victory at the United Nations the day before, where the Security Council passed a resolution condemning Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.
“It’s very unique, I’ve never seen anything like it” said Rodrigo Reis, 23, who came from Louisville, Kentucky.
“It’s very meaningful, its Christmas time, where everything started.”
Christian clergymen welcomed the top Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land inside the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, the birth place of Jesus Christ, as Christians worldwide begin to prepare to celebrate Christmas this year.
The Rev. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarchate, is the temporary chief clergyman to the local Catholic population. He traveled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on Saturday in a traditional procession. Later, he was to celebrate Midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity, built at the grotto revered as Jesus’ birthplace.
“I wish this joyous atmosphere of Christmas will continue in the year and not just for a few days and I hope the coming year will bring a little more serenity and peaceful relations in our country. We need it,” he said.
“I am happy that the war, at least the military war, in Aleppo is finished and that for the first time in Aleppo the Christians can celebrate without fear the Christmas season. I wish that they can now reconstruct, rebuild the city, not only the infrastructure but also the common relations that was a tradition over there,” he told The Associated Press.
The Syrian government assumed full control of Aleppo this month when rebels agreed to withdraw from their last remaining enclave after more than four years of heavy fighting over the city.
A Palestinian dressed as Santa Claus takes a picture outside the Church of the Nativity in Manger Square in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on Saturday. Majdi Mohammed, The Associated Press