Pil­grims cel­e­brate amid tight se­cu­rity

Cool weather, less­ened vi­o­lence lift spir­its of vis­i­tors

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Isma’il Kushkush

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

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