Thousands journey to Bethlehem
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.