Tens of thousands of Christians from around the world battled cold yet dry weather Saturday to celebrate Christmas at Manger Square in Bethlehem, the city where Jesus Christ is held to have been born.
Listening to visiting choirs, many stood near the giant decorated Christmas trees on a side of the square taking pictures with their cellular phones of themselves and their families and friends.
“It is very important for me and my family to be here on Christmas Eve,” said Sally Evans, from the United Kingdom, as she was walking around the square with her husband and two young children.
Being in the place where Christ was born on the day of his birth gives you a special feeling that you do not want to miss.
The crowds were waiting for the arrival of the annual Christmas procession that started from Jerusalem, which borders Bethlehem to the north, and which is normally led by the patriarch of the Roman Catholic Church in Jerusalem.
This year the procession was led by the former Custodian of the Holy Land, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, who was appointed in June as the Apostolic Administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem following the retirement of Patriarch Fouad Twal.
The procession of about 40 cars stopped first at Mar Elias Monastery outside Bethlehem after leaving the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem’s Old City shortly before noon.
The procession then passed through a gate in the concrete wall built by Israel to separate Bethlehem, which is in the West Bank, from Jerusalem.
A few meters from Manger Square, the cars stopped and the delegation complete the rest of the way to the Church of the Nativity on foot.
Pizzaballa arrived at Manger Square at around 2:00 pm local time (12 GMT) and was greeted by Bethlehem mayor, Vera Baboun, and several other Palestinian officials and guests.
Midnight mass will be held later in the day at St Catherine Church in the Nativity and in the presence of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his prime minister, Rami Hamdallah.
In a Christmas message, Abbas stressed that “Christmas, a Palestinian call for hope and justice, is a unique message that we have been carrying generation after generation, as a precious treasure that began in Palestine and is celebrated all over the world.”
He said that he will soon visit Pope Francis in the Vatican. “We will undoubtedly tackle several issues of mutual interest, including the advancement of justice and peace in the region, as well as encouraging interfaith dialogue towards more understanding and respect,” he said.
Tourism to Bethlehem was strong this year, according to Palestinian Authority Tourism Minister Rula Ma’aya’a.
An estimated 2.35 million tourists visited Bethlehem, about 6 per cent more than in the previous year, she said, adding that the city’s 40 hotels were almost at full occupancy for the Christmas season.