Thousands jour­ney to Beth­le­hem

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Mo­ham­mad Daragh­meh and Patty Nieberg

Chris­tians flocked to the West Bank city to cel­e­brate Christmas Eve in the tra­di­tional birth­place of Je­sus.

BETH­LE­HEM, West Bank — Thousands of Chris­tians on Tues­day flocked to the West Bank town of Beth­le­hem, cel­e­brat­ing Christmas Eve in the tra­di­tional birth­place of Je­sus.

Vis­i­tors con­verged on the town’s large Christmas tree in Manger Square, near the spot be­lieved to mark Je­sus’ birth­place. Uni­formed Pales­tinian scouts wear­ing yel­low and gold capes pa­raded past as­sem­bled vis­i­tors, the sound of drums and bag­pipes fill­ing the cool, clear air.

Ven­dors hawked snacks and hol­i­day gifts, adding to the fes­tive at­mos­phere.

Roger Hoagland, a Chris­tian ed­u­ca­tor and mis­sion­ary from Louisville, Ken­tucky, said he had come to lead a Bap­tist choir for a fourth time and de­scribed his visit as the ex­pe­ri­ence of a life­time.

“We love this op­por­tu­nity,” he said. “We have 40 peo­ple and many of them are from the U.S. and other coun­tries. They come to cel­e­brate the birth of Je­sus Christ.”

While Beth­le­hem is in the Pales­tinian-ad­min­is­tered area of the Is­rae­lioc­cu­pied West Bank, Is­rael’s sep­a­ra­tion bar­rier en­closes parts of the city and is a con­stant re­minder of the com­plex po­lit­i­cal re­al­ity. Most of the Christmas Eve vis­i­tors ap­peared to be lo­cal res­i­dents, with for­eign pil­grims seem­ing to make up a mod­est por­tion of the crowd.

Still, the cel­e­bra­tions capped the most suc­cess­ful year in his­tory for Pales­tinian tourism, ac­cord­ing to Tourism Min­is­ter Rula Maayah.

Beth­le­hem, lo­cated just out­side of Jerusalem, has in­vested heav­ily in tourism. It’s built new ho­tels and tried to di­ver­sify it­self by of­fer­ing culi­nary and cul­tural des­ti­na­tions in ad­di­tion to its tra­di­tional holy sites.

Maayah es­ti­mated that some 15,000 pil­grims were stay­ing overnight in Beth­le­hem’s fully booked ho­tels this Christmas. Tourists were also stay­ing in other West Bank towns, such as Ra­mal­lah and Jeri­cho, in ad­di­tion to Jerusalem.

In all, she said the num­ber of for­eign tourists vis­it­ing the West Bank this year is es­ti­mated to reach 3.5 mil­lion peo­ple, up from 3 mil­lion last year.

Christmas fes­tiv­i­ties are typ­i­cally a boost for Beth­le­hem’s flag­ging econ­omy and for the Holy Land’s dwin­dling Chris­tian pop­u­la­tion, which has shrunk over the decades as peo­ple fled con­flict and searched for bet­ter op­por­tu­ni­ties abroad.

The Church of the Na­tiv­ity, where Chris­tians be­lieve Je­sus was born, hosted Pales­tinian dig­ni­taries and pil­grims from around the world for a mid­night Mass.

Arch­bishop Pier­bat­tista Piz­z­a­balla, the head Catholic cleric in the Holy Land, had crossed an Is­raeli army check­point from Jerusalem to Beth­le­hem, where he was greeted by prom­i­nent mem­bers of Beth­le­hem’s Chris­tian com­mu­nity.

Piz­z­a­balla cel­e­brated mid­night Mass at the Church of the Na­tiv­ity, which houses the grotto revered as Je­sus’ birth­place.

Piz­z­a­balla said that he draws hope from the “de­sire, es­pe­cially in the youth, to do some­thing for their so­ci­eties, fam­i­lies.”

Mean­while, at the Vat­i­can, Pope Fran­cis as­sured the faith­ful that God loves every­one — “even the worst of us” — as he cel­e­brated the joy­ous birth of Christ af­ter a less-than-joy­ful year of scan­dals and op­po­si­tion.

With a choir singing the Christmas hymn “The First Noel,“Fran­cis pro­cessed down the cen­ter aisle of St. Peter’s Basil­ica late Tues­day and un­veiled a statue of the new­born Je­sus ly­ing in a na­tiv­ity scene at the foot of the al­tar.

Fran­cis said the birth of Je­sus, which Chris­tians com­mem­o­rate on Christmas Day, was a re­minder of God’s un­con­di­tional love for every­one, “even the worst of us.”

“God does not love you be­cause you think and act the right way,” he said. “You may have mis­taken ideas, you may have made a com­plete mess of things, but the Lord con­tin­ues to love you.”

At the same time though, he called for the faith­ful to al­low them­selves to be trans­formed by Je­sus’ “crazy love” and to stop try­ing to change oth­ers.

Fran­cis has fre­quently em­pha­sized his call for “per­sonal con­ver­sion” in his re­form-minded pa­pacy, be­liev­ing that true re­form can­not be im­posed from on high, but dis­cerned from within.

The pon­tiff has sim­i­larly de­nounced the “holier than-thou” at­ti­tude of doc­tri­nal and le­gal purists, who have chafed at his pro­gres­sive open­ings to gays, di­vorcees and peo­ple on the mar­gins.

Those crit­ics have seized on the sex­ual abuse and fi­nan­cial scan­dals that have buf­feted the pa­pacy of the 83-year-old Je­suit pope.

The scan­dals are likely to follow Fran­cis into 2020, with devel­op­ments in a cor­rup­tion in­ves­ti­ga­tion in­volv­ing hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars in do­na­tions to the Holy See and the re­lease of a re­port on what the Vat­i­can knew about ex-Car­di­nal Theodore McCar­rick, who was de­frocked for sex­u­ally abus­ing adults and mi­nors,


Pales­tinian Scouts per­form dur­ing a pa­rade Tues­day at Manger Square in Beth­le­hem.


Chris­tian pil­grims light can­dles at the Church of the Na­tiv­ity in the bib­li­cal West Bank city of Beth­le­hem.


Pier­bat­tista Piz­z­a­balla, apos­tolic ad­min­is­tra­tor of the Latin Pa­tri­ar­chate of Jerusalem, blesses wor­ship­pers.

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