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WEST BANK: Bethlehem glows on Christmas Eve

December 24, 2010 |  7:50 pm

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In the West Bank city of Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus Christ, thousands of Palestinians and visitors from all over the world gathered at Manger Square on Christmas Eve to watch Jerusalem's Catholic patriarch, Fouad Twal, lead a procession of priests to the Church of the Nativity and to listen to his midnight Mass sermon. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who regularly attends the midnight Mass, was among them.

The procession started at midday from the Catholic church in the Old City of Jerusalem. A convoy of about 50 cars, led by the patriarch, drove the six-mile road south from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. When the convoy arrived at the outskirts of Bethlehem, a metal gate in the 20-foot-high concrete wall that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem opened to let the cars through.

Bethlehem had suffered a great deal in the last 10 years. Its highest moment of glory was the turn of the millennium, when tens of thousands of people gathered there to celebrate that very special time that comes only once every 1,000 years. However, when the peace process that was supposed to emancipate the Palestinian people from the long Israeli occupation broke down, trouble engulfed the entire West Bank, and Bethlehem's share was not lesser that any of its sister cities.

The Church of the Nativity, which stands over the grotto where Christ was born, witnessed some of the most difficult times of what was known as the second intifada, the uprising. Armed Palestinians took refuge in the church April 2, 2002, as Israeli soldiers raided the city and surrounded the church.

The siege went on for five weeks. Several of the gunmen inside were killed by Israeli snipers. The rest left the church in a deal between the Israeli army and the Palestinian Authority that allowed them to go to the Gaza Strip or into exile. The banishment was supposed to be for one year. Ten years later, the church evacuees are still living in exile because Israel has denied them permission to return.

The Christmas Eve celebrations were suspended. The atmosphere was not right for celebration. It took the city and people several years to recover from the sad memories and get back into the mood of celebration. This Christmas Eve, the festivities have almost returned to normal.

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Boy and girl scouts in uniforms from several Bethlehem-area schools and clubs blew horns and Scottish bagpipes while others beat the drums as they marched through Manger Square ahead of the patriarch’s arrival. Crowds watched and cheered, taking pictures of the scouts and eagerly waiting for the patriarch.

Priests dressed in white cloaks came out of the Church of the Nativity to receive the patriarch, who arrived at the square in his black Mercedes. The patriarch put on his special pink Christmas uniform and cap and started the walk toward the church hand in hand with the mayor of Bethlehem and Palestinian officials who received him when he arrived in the city.

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The patriarch and his entourage had to lower their heads as they walked through the short and narrow traditional entrance into a big and empty space inside the church. From there they went straight to the grotto to pay tribute to the site where Christ was born. After that, the patriarch led a short Mass at St. Catherine Church next door before he took a rest in preparation for the long midnight Mass.

Meanwhile, choirs from around the world sang Christmas carols at a stage set up at Manger Square, entertaining the crowds who stayed around waiting to see the square illuminated in the evening.

The illumination was brilliant. Lights everywhere and the Christmas tree outside the Church of the Nativity stood out among all other adornments. People walked around enjoying the spring-like weather and waiting for the midnight Mass.

St. Catherine Church was packed with people, and those not lucky enough to get a ticket to enter the church had to watch the prayers, held mainly in Latin, on a big outdoor screen.

Inside, Twal listened to prayers and joined them. In his sermon he said that “our lives in the Middle East are still ruled by fears, uncertainty and worries,” and he called on the world to pray for peace in the Middle East.

He called for dialogue among the various religious faiths, which he said “is the answer to modern atheism and fundamentalism that threaten the people of God.”

Twal condemned “all kinds of violence, extremism, injustice and prejudice,” and prayed for Jerusalem to become “not only the capital of two nations, but also a model for the world of harmony and coexistence of the three monotheistic religions.”

He prayed for peace: “Peace be upon Israel, Palestine, our people and throughout the Middle East, so that our children may live and grow in peaceful and joyful environment.”

-- Maher Abukhater in Ramallah, West Bank

Photos: Top, Patriarch Fouad Twal, in the Christmas pink cloak and cap, walks with Palestinian officials toward the Church of the Nativity. Middle, scouts march at Manger Square in Bethlehem, blowing their Scottish bagpipes. Bottom, priests walk out of the Church of the Nativity to receive Twal. Credit: Maher Abukhater