BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) — Tens of thousands of Palestinian and international pilgrims crowded the streets of Bethlehem on Wednesday to mark Christmas according to the Western Christian calendar.
The celebrations mark the beginning of Bethlehem’s Christmas season and were attended by visitors from around the world as well as from historic Palestine’s 200,000-strong Christian community.
Worshipers gathered in Manger Square beginning before 9 a.m. but celebrations did not officially begin until the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fuad Twal, who is responsible for Palestine, Jordan, and Cyprus, arrived in Bethlehem around noon to announce the start of the Christmas celebrations.
He came accompanied by thousands of local scout groups, who played music as they marched from the Israeli military checkpoint north of Bethlehem along the traditional pilgrimage route taken by Mary and Joseph en route to the Church of the Nativity, where Jesus Christ is believed to have been born.
The patriarch was greet by Palestinians officials including tourism minister Rula Maayeh and Bethlehem mayor Vera Baboun.
Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch John X Yazigi later addressed the crowds assembled in Manger Square with a call for peace for people in Palestine and throughout the region.
“How much we need the peace of your presence, O Christ, in the land where your gospel came out to the whole world,” he said in his statements.
“How much we need your presence in a land that is tired of the drums of war, severing ties, and kidnapping of people. The land that accepted your message 2,000 years ago is wounded and bleeding,” he continued.
“It is bleeding for the unprecedented terrorism, kidnapping, and being judged as infidels its people have suffered. But this land, and its good people have overcame a plethora of grave difficulties throughout history.”
“It seems that the world has not awakened from its slumber with what is happening in the Middle East, and especially Syria. It seems that it hasn’t heard, or does not want to hear the cries of the despairing people,” he added.
“Nevertheless, all that does not scare us because we are twins with this land, we are entrenched and will remain in it.”
Large numbers of Palestinian Authority security forces spread throughout the city in advance of the Christmas marches and displays, though no security problems were reported.
The only incident was a brawl that broke out in Manger Square between members of two different scout troops, whose members are known for their loyalty.
When police attempted to get involved, members of the troops began fighting with police as well, although the brawl was eventually settled peacefully.
The tens of thousands assembled in the square included large numbers of Palestinian Christians from inside Israel, where around 150,000 Palestinian Christians live in addition to the 50,000 in the West Bank.
Around 500 Christians from Gaza were also allowed by Israel to come to Bethlehem to attend services, a brief respite for only a small number of the approximately 1,500 Gazan Christians living under the Israeli siege.
Hundreds of people are also expected to flock the Nativity Church for midnight mass, where President Mahmoud Abbas will also be in attendance.
Tourism minister Rula Maayeh told Ma’an earlier on Wednesday that despite the major setbacks faced by the local tourism industry, about 100,000 visitors were expected for this year’s Christmas season.
The season includes Orthodox Christmas, which is observed by Christians of the Eastern Orthodox rite, including a majority of Palestinians in early January.