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‘No room at the inn’ as Bethlehem celebrates Christmas
Jerusalem patriarch calls for Mideast reconciliation
AFP | Dec 25,2011 | 23:19
Worshippers pray in the Church of Nativity, the site widely believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on Saturday (AFP photo by Musa Al Shaer)
BETHLEHEM — Tens of thousands of Christians were flocking to Bethlehem on Saturday to celebrate Christmas following a year of political upheaval and change across the Arab world.
In Rome, thousands of the faithful gathered in the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Square as night fell for the blessing of a giant Nativity scene to the sound of accordions, hurdy gurdies and Christmas carols.
As day broke on the not-so-little-town, which lies just a few miles south of Jerusalem, locals were busily preparing to welcome thousands of pilgrims who want to see the spot where the Bible says Jesus was born to a couple from Nazareth.
The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fuad Twal, the most senior Roman Catholic bishop in the Middle East, made his solemn entry into the birthplace of Christ in the middle of the afternoon.
He was accompanied by Palestinian Scout troops playing bagpipes, an inheritance from the British mandate in the first half of the 20th century.
The colourful procession led to Manger Square in the centre of Bethlehem. Christmas is a national holiday in the Palestinian territories.
Hotels and guesthouses across this ancient town perched on the hilltops were packed to capacity, Palestinian officials said, with more than 50,000 visitors from around the world expected to join in the festivities.
“Hotels are full. We have no rooms left even though the number of hotel rooms has multiplied in the last three years,” Palestinian Tourism Minister Khulud Daibes told AFP.
“We expect up to 50,000 people to come in the next two days.” This year’s theme, she said, was “Palestine celebrating hope”.
Christmas Eve celebrations are all taking place in and around Manger Square, the central plaza next to the Church of the Nativity.
The church is built over the site where Christians believe Mary gave birth to Jesus in a stable, and laid him in an animal’s feeding trough, or Manger.
The boy scouts, with their drums and bagpipes, marched through the town during the afternoon for the annual Christmas parade, after which concerts and other entertainment events got underway on what is the biggest tourist attraction of the year in the Palestinian territories.
A huge Christmas tree covered in lights and glittering decorations dominated the centre of the square, which was already filling up with excited visitors, some wearing red Santa hats, others in the sombre garb of various monastic orders.
Singing filled the square as pilgrims belted out carols in Arabic, and street vendors carried out a brisk trade in cakes, sweets and hot air balloons.
“This is my first time here. It’s very surreal,” said Josh, a American in his 20s from Arkansas who was wearing a traditional Palestinian keffiyeh.
“Being here in the Holy Land where Jesus is from is great!”
Excited tourists snapped pictures of the giant tree and of a local dressed up as Father Christmas, as a group of foreign activists in Santa hats, each wearing a letter on their clothes, lined up to spell the words: Free Palestine.
There were also Muslims among the crowds. Many veiled women brought their children to join the celebrations over the birth of Jesus, or Issa in Arabic, whom they revere as a prophet.
“I’m here today to see the celebrations like every year. We come as Christians and Muslims to see them,” said Shireen Knaan. “There is no difference between Christians and Muslims as it is the Prophet Issa’s birthday.”
The celebrations were to continue into the night and culminate with a celebration of midnight mass by Twal.
Twal was to call for reconciliation in Syria, Egypt, Iraq and North Africa in his Christmas homily.
In the text of a speech published ahead of delivery at midnight mass in the place of Christ’s birth, Twal urged “the return of calm and reconciliation in Syria, in Egypt, in Iraq and in North Africa”. 
“We ask for peace, stability and security for the entire Middle East,” the homily reads.
In a message delivered earlier this week, Twal acknowledged feeling “concern” over the plight of Eastern Christians in the region.
“I have always defended the changes taking place in favour of freedom and democracy. I have repeatedly emphasised that Christians are not excluded from these movements,” he said.
“O Child of Bethlehem, in this New Year, we place in your hands this troubled Middle East and, above all, our youth full of legitimate aspirations, who are frustrated by the economic and political situation, and in search of a better future,” the homily reads.
Twal’s homily also addresses the Palestinians, welcoming Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas who was to attend the mass, and congratulating him “in his unfaltering efforts to achieve a just peace in the Middle East, a main thrust of which is the creation of a Palestinian State”.
The address says the Palestinians “recently turned to the United Nations in the hope of finding a just solution to the conflict,” and notes that “they have been asked to reengage in a failed peace process,” which “has left a bitter taste of broken promises and of mistrust”.
Bethlehem attracts hundreds of thousands of pilgrims each year and is the main tourist attraction in the Palestinian territories.
The Israeli army has eased security measures to facilitate the arrival in Bethlehem of Palestinian and Arab Israeli Christians.
The town is cut off from neighbouring Israel by part of the separation barrier that snakes along, and often inside, the line dividing Israel from the West Bank.
Roman Catholics, Protestants and some Eastern Orthodox celebrate Christmas on December 25, but other Orthodox and oriental churches do not do until January.
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