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Thousands enjoy merry Christmas in Bethlehem

Tuesday - 12/25/2012, 12:24pm  ET

Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad Twal waves to the crowds before Christmas celebrations in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, Monday, Dec. 24, 2012. Twal, the top Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land, has celebrated the United Nations' recent recognition of a Palestinian state in his annual pre-Christmas remarks.(AP Photo/Adel Hana)

DALIA NAMMARI
Associated Press

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) -- Thousands of Christians from the world over packed Manger Square in Bethlehem Monday to celebrate the birth of Jesus in the ancient West Bank town where he was born.

For their Palestinian hosts, this holiday season was an especially joyous one, with the hardships of the Israeli occupation that so often clouded previous Christmas Eve celebrations eased by the United Nations' recent recognition of an independent state of Palestine.

Festivities led up to the Midnight Mass at St. Catherine's Church, next to the fourth-century Church of the Nativity, built over the grotto where tradition says Jesus was born.

"From this holy place, I invite politicians and men of good will to work with determination for peace and reconciliation that encompasses Palestine and Israel in the midst of all the suffering in the Middle East," said the top Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land, Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal in his annual address. "Please continue to fight for a just cause to achieve peace and security for the people of the Holy Land."

In his pre-Christmas homily, Twal said the road to actual freedom was still long, but this year's festivities were doubly joyful, celebrating "the birth of Christ our Lord and the birth of the state of Palestine."

"The path (to statehood) remains long, and will require a united effort," added Twal, a Palestinian citizen of Jordan, at the patriarchate's headquarters in Jerusalem's Old City.

Then he set off in a procession for the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Jesus' traditional birthplace. There, he was reminded that life on the ground for Palestinians has not changed since the U.N. recognized their state last month in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

Twal had to enter the biblical town through a massive metal gate in the barrier of towering concrete slabs Israel built between Jerusalem and Bethlehem during a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings in the last decade. The Israeli military, which controls the crossing, said it significantly eased restrictions for the Christmas season.

Israel, backed by the United States, opposed the statehood bid, saying it was a Palestinian ploy to bypass negotiations. Talks stalled four years ago.

Hundreds of people greeted Twal in Manger Square, outside the Church of Nativity. The mood was festive under sunny skies, with children dressed in holiday finery or in Santa costumes, and marching bands playing in the streets.

After nightfall, a packed Manger Square, resplendent with strings of lights, decorations and a 17-meter (55-foot) Christmas tree, took on a festival atmosphere, as pilgrims mixed with locals.

A choral group from the Baptist Church in Jerusalem performed carols on one side of the square, handing out sheets of lyrics and encouraging others to sing along with songs such as "We Wish You A Merry Christmas."

Vendors sold balloons, cotton candy and corn on the cob, bands played Christmas songs and tourists packed cafes that are quiet most of the rest of the year. Pilgrims from around the world wandered the streets, singing Christmas carols and visiting churches.

Devout Christians said it was a moving experience to be so close to the origins of their faith.

"It's a special feeling to be here, it's an encounter with my soul and God," said Joanne Kurczewska, a professor at Warsaw University in Poland, who was visiting Bethlehem for a second time at Christmas.

Pastor Al Mucciarone, 61, from Short Hills, New Jersey, agreed.

"We come here to celebrate Jesus. This is a very important town. Great things come from small events. The son of God was born in this small village. We hope all will follow Jesus," he said.

Audra Kasparian, 45, from Salt Lake City, Utah, called her visit to Bethlehem "a life event to cherish forever. It is one of those events that is great to be a part of."

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas also visited Bethlehem and said "peace will prevail from the birthplace of Jesus, and we wish everyone peace and happiness," according to the official Palestinian Wafa news agency.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a special Christmas greeting too, wishing Christians "a year of security, prosperity and peace."

Christmas is the high point of the year in Bethlehem, which, like the rest of the West Bank, is struggling to recover from the economic hard times that followed the violent Palestinian uprising against Israel that broke out in late 2000.

Tourists and pilgrims who were scared away by the fighting have been returning in larger numbers. Last year's Christmas Eve celebration produced the highest turnout in more than a decade, with some 100,000 visitors, including foreign workers and Arab Christians from Israel.

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