Christians flock to Bethlehem to mark Jesus' birth, as pope presides over Vatican Mass
Despite the tension and violence that shook the Holy Land this year, Christians from around the world flocked to Manger Square in Bethlehem on Monday to celebrate the birth of Jesus in the ancient West Bank town where he was born.
Others traveled to Vatican City, where Pope Benedict XVI had lit a Christmas peace candle set on the windowsill of his private studio. Pilgrims, tourists and Romans gathered below in St. Peter's Square for the inauguration Monday evening of a Nativity scene and cheered when the flame was lit.
The pope marked Christmas Eve with Mass in St. Peter's Basilica. The service began at 10 p.m. local time, or 4 p.m. ET. The midnight start time was changed at the Vatican years ago to let the pontiff rest before a Christmas Day speech to be delivered from the basilica's central balcony.
In his homily, Benedict cited the Gospel account of Mary and Joseph finding no room at an inn and ending up in a stable which sheltered the baby Jesus. He urged people to reflect upon what they find time for in their busy, technology-driven lives.
"The great moral question of our attitude toward the homeless, toward refugees and migrants takes on a deeper dimension: Do we really have room for God when he seeks to enter under our roof? Do we have time and space for him?" the pope said.
"The faster we can move, the more efficient our time-saving appliances become, the less time we have. And God? The question of God never seems urgent," Benedict lamented.
The pope worried that "we are so 'full' of ourselves that there is no room left for God." He added, "that means there is no room for others either -- for children, for the poor, for the stranger."
The pontiff also prayed that Israelis and Palestinians live in peace and freedom, and asked the faithful to pray for strife-torn Syria as well as Lebanon and Iraq.
In Bethlehem, the Palestinian hosts were hopeful after a recent vote in favor of statehood in the United Nations, though the vote did little to bring them closer to independence.
In his annual pre-Christmas homily, the top Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land, Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal, said this year's festivities were doubly joyful.
"The path (to statehood) remains long, and will require a united effort," said 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. 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 Christmas tree, took on a festival atmosphere.
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."
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.
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, N.J., 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."
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.
The Israeli Tourism Ministry predicted a 25 percent drop from that level this year, following last month's clash between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza, which put a chill on tourist arrivals. Foreign tourists heading to Bethlehem must pass through Israel or the Israel-controlled border crossing into the West Bank from Jordan.
Outside the town's quaint Manger Square, Bethlehem is a drab, sprawling town with a dwindling Christian base.
Overall, there are only about 50,000 Christians in the West Bank, less than 3 percent of the population, the result of a lower birthrate and increased emigration. Bethlehem's Christians make up only a third of the town's residents, down from 75 percent a few decades ago.
Elias Joha, a 44-year-old Christian who runs a souvenir store, said even with the U.N. recognition, this year's celebrations were sad for him. He said most of his family has left, and that if he had the opportunity, he would do the same.
"These celebrations are not even for Christians because there are no Christians. It is going from bad to worse from all sides ... we are not enjoying Christmas as before."
Located on the southeastern outskirts of Jerusalem, Bethlehem has the highest unemployment in the West Bank, but the tourist boom of Christmas offered a brief reprieve. Officials say all 34 hotels in the town are fully booked for the Christmas season, including 13 new ones built this year.
Israel turned Bethlehem over to Palestinian civil control a few days before Christmas in 1995, and since then, residents have been celebrating the holiday regardless of their religion. Many Muslims took part in celebration Monday as well.
Christians across the region marked the holiday.
In Kabul, Afghanistan, soldiers and service members with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) sang carols and lit candles during a service on Christmas eve at the U.S.-led coalition base.
In Iraq, Christians gathered for services with tight security, including at Baghdad's Our Lady of Salvation church, the scene of a brutal October 2010 attack that killed more than 50 worshippers and wounded scores more.
Earlier this month, Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, who is responsible for the Vatican's outreach to the Middle East's Catholic communities, traveled to Iraq and presided over a Mass to rededicate the church following renovations. In his homily, he remembered those who were killed and expressed hope that "the tears shed in this sacred place become the good seed of communion and witness and bear much fruit," according to an account by Vatican Radio.
The exact number of Christians remaining in Iraq is not known, but it has fallen sharply from as many as 1.4 million before the U.S.-led invasion nearly a decade ago to about 400,000 to 600,000, according community leaders cited by the U.S. State Department.