REPORTING FROM BETHLEHEM, WEST BANK -- Thousands of people flocked to Manger Square on Christmas Eve to celebrate the birth of Jesus in this West Bank city, the cradle of the Christian faith where Christ was born more than 2,000 years ago.
This special day in Bethlehem is marked by two events: The arrival of the motorcade of the head of the Roman Catholic Church in the Holy Land, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad Twal, to the Church of the Nativity, built on the spot where tradition holds that Jesus was born, and midnight Mass, led byTwal and attended by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
The patriarch's motorcade started at noon from Jerusalem’s Old City. It drove through Jerusalem streets, led by Israeli police, until it reached a 50-foot-high concrete wall on the outskirts of Bethlehem.
An Israeli-army controlled metal door opened in the wall to allow the motorcade into Bethlehem, which looks like a city under siege with the wall and army watch towers surrounding it. Inside the wall, the motorcade stopped and was greeted by Palestinian officials, who accompanied it to Manger Square outside the Church of the Nativity , where thousands of people were waiting.
During the midnight Mass, the patriarch spoke about the message of peace in an area beset by war, upheaval and conflict.
“Our region is undergoing radical changes that affect our present and our future,” Twal said. “We cannot stand by as mere spectators. We, the spiritual leaders and those who hold in their hands the destiny of peoples, must do everything in our power to protect our people, to work for their survival, and to realize their aspirations.
"We are at one with our people, for their suffering and their hopes are our own,” he continued. “History teaches us that the will of the people, with their aspirations to peace and freedom, is stronger than the power of injustice. ... We hope that with the grace of God and with the support of people of goodwill, the physical and psychological walls that men build around themselves may disappear. God wants bridges that unite rather than walls that separate that which God has united.”
Twal concluded with a his hopes for the region.
“We ask for peace for the Palestinian people and for the Israeli people,” Twal said. “We ask for peace, stability and security for the entire Middle East.
“We pray for the return of calm and reconciliation in Syria, in Egypt, in Iraq and in North Africa.”
-- Maher Abukhater
Photo: Patriarch Fouad Twal, center, takes part in traditional Christmas Eve ceremony outside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Credit: Abed al Hashlamoun / European Pressphoto Agency