BETHLEHEM, West Bank—Pilgrims and locals celebrated Christmas Day on Tuesday in the ancient Bethlehem church where tradition holds Jesus was born, candles illuminating the sacred site and the joyous sound of prayer filling its overflowing halls.
Overcast skies and a cold wind didn’t dampen the spirits of worshipers who came dressed in holiday finery and the traditional attire of foreign lands to mark the holy day in this biblical West Bank town.
Bells pealed and long lines formed inside the fourth-century Church of the Nativity complex as Christian faithful waited eagerly to see the grotto that is Jesus’ traditional birthplace.
Duncan Hardock, 24, a writer from MacLean, Virginia, traveled to Bethlehem from the republic of Georgia, where he had been teaching English. After passing through the separation barrier Israel built to ward off West Bank attackers, he walked to Bethlehem’s Manger Square where the church stands.
“I feel we got to see both sides of Bethlehem in a really short period of time,” Hardock said. “On our walk from the wall, we got to see the lonesome, closed side of Bethlehem … But the moment we got into town, we’re suddenly in the middle of the party.”
Bethlehem lies 10 kilometers south of Jerusalem. Entry to the city is controlled by Israel, which occupied the West Bank in 1967.
Hardock’s girlfriend, 22-year-old Jennifer Gemmell, compared the festive spirit in Manger Square on Christmas Eve, saying “it’s like being at Times Square at New Year’s.”
The cavernous church was unable to hold all the worshipers who had hoped to celebrate Christmas Day Mass inside. A loudspeaker outside the church broadcast the service to the hundreds in the square who could not pack inside.
Tourists in the square posed for pictures as vendors hawked olive wood rosaries, nativity scenes, corn on the cob, roasted nuts, tea and coffee.
An official from the Palestinian tourism ministry predicted 10,000 foreigners would visit Bethlehem on Christmas Day and said 15,000 visited on Christmas Eve—up 20 percent from a year earlier. The official attributed the rise in part to the Church of the Nativity’s classification earlier this year as a UN World Heritage Site.
Information technology consultant Martin Wzork came to Bethlehem with his wife and young daughter from Krakow, Poland.
“My wife believes in God, so it’s important for her,” said Wzork, who described himself as a nonbeliever. “For me, it’s interesting because it’s a historical place and famous.”
On Christmas Eve, thousands of Christians from all over the world packed the square, which was awash in light, resplendent with decorations and adorned by a lavishly decorated, 17-meter fir tree.
Their Palestinian hosts were specially joyous this season, proud of the United Nations’ recognition of an independent state of Palestine just last month.
Israel, backed by the United States, opposed the Palestinian statehood bid, saying it was a ploy to bypass negotiations. Talks stalled four years ago.
Festivities amid suffering
Festivities led up to the Midnight Mass at St. Catherine’s Church, next to the Church of the Nativity.
“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.
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.”
Then Twal set off in a procession for Bethlehem. There, he was reminded that life on the ground for Palestinians had not changed since the UN recognized their state last month.
Hundreds of people greeted Twal in Manger Square. The mood was festive, 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 Christmas tree, took on a festival atmosphere.
A choral group 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.
‘Encounter with God’
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.
“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,” Pastor Al Mucciarone, 61, from New Jersey, said.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas also visited Bethlehem and said “peace will prevail from the birthplace of Jesus, and we wish everyone peace and happiness.”
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 in late 2000. AP