Thousands of Christians flocked to the Palestinian town of Bethlehem on Wednesday to celebrate Christmas Eve at the traditional birthplace of Jesus, lifting the spirits of a year of violent conflict and collapsed peace efforts that brought suffering to many.
For Christians, Christmas marks the birth of Jesus in a Bethlehem barn manager, chosen because there was no room for his parents at an inn.
The central Manger Square was decorated in white and yellow lights, and a giant Christmas tree. On a cool, clear night, there was a carnival atmosphere: Vendors hawked corn, candied apples, watches, and balloons in the shape of cartoon characters.
Scout troops played bagpipes, horns and drums, and bands from around the world performed on a stage, singing Christmas carols and original Christmas rock ballads, mostly in English. A recording of “Feliz Navidad” blasted through the speakers, too. A Palestinian host welcomed members of Gaza’s tiny Christian community, who were permitted to cross through Israel to the West Bank, eliciting whistles and applause.
“My son and I and my husband came for Christmas to see, you know, be right here where it all took place,” said Irene Adkins, 63, from Lorain, Ohio, as she sat in a Bethlehem visitor’s center. “It feels wonderful.”
The celebrations brought a boost of holiday cheer to the area after a difficult year. Israeli-Palestinian peace talks collapsed last spring, and Israel battled Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip during a 50-day war over the summer.
“Our message this Christmas is a message of peace like every year, but what we added this year is that all we want from Christmas is justice. Justice for our people, justice for our case and the right to live like all other people in the world in our independent state without the occupation,” said Palestinian Tourism Minister Rula Maayah.
But for many faithful across the Middle East, the occasion will be tinged with saddens as the militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) continue to run freely between the two countries, persecuting religious minorities.
Pope Francis ushered in Christmas Eve celebrations in Basilica with a special phone call to an Iraqi refugee camp to inform families forced to flee their homes by ISIS militants that they were in his thoughts this Christmas.
“You are like Jesus on this night, and I bless you and I am close to you,” the pope said in a satellite phone call to refugees at the tent camp in Ankawa, a suburb of the Kurdish city of Irbil in northern Iraq, according to the Associated Press.
The pope told the refugees that, like Jesus, they were forced to flee because there was no place for them.
“I embrace you all and wish for you a holy Christmas.”
The Ankawa camp houses mostly Christian refugees forced to flee the onslaught by militants of the Islamic State. In a letter to Mideast Christians penned earlier this week, Francis urged them to remain in the region, where Christian communities have existed for 2,000 years, and to help their fellow Muslim citizens present “a more authentic image of Islam” as a religion of peace.
During the Mass hours later in St. Peter’s, Francis echoed some of the themes he raised in the phone call as he reflected on the Nativity scene.
“How much the world needs tenderness today!” he said. “God’s patience, God’s closeness, God’s tenderness.”
[With AP]SHOW MORE