Thousands of Christians from throughout the world packed Manger Square in Bethlehem to celebrate the birth of Jesus in the ancient West Bank town where he was born.
For their Palestinian hosts, this holiday season was an especially joyous one, with the hardships of the Israeli occupation that so often clouded previous Christmas Eve celebrations eased by the United Nations’ recent recognition of an independent state of Palestine.
Festivities led up to the Midnight Mass at St Catherine’s Church, next to the fourth-century Church of the Nativity, built over the grotto where tradition says Jesus was born.
“From this holy place, I invite politicians and men of good will to work with determination for peace and reconciliation that encompasses Palestine and Israel in the midst of all the suffering in the Middle East,” said the top Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land, Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal in his annual address.
In his pre-Christmas homily, Mr Twal said the road to actual freedom was still long, but this year’s festivities were doubly joyful, celebrating “the birth of Christ our Lord and the birth of the state of Palestine”.
“The path (to statehood) remains long, and will require a united effort,” added Mr Twal, a Palestinian citizen of Jordan, at the patriarchate’s headquarters in Jerusalem’s Old City.
Then he set off in a procession for the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Jesus’ traditional birthplace.
There, he was reminded that life on the ground for Palestinians has not changed since the UN recognised their state last month in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
Mr Twal had to enter the biblical town through a massive metal gate in the barrier of towering concrete slabs Israel built between Jerusalem and Bethlehem during a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings in the last decade. The Israeli military, which controls the crossing, said it significantly eased restrictions for the Christmas season.
Israel, backed by the United States, opposed the statehood bid, saying it was a Palestinian ploy to bypass negotiations. Talks stalled four years ago.
Hundreds of people greeted Mr Twal in Manger Square, outside the Church of Nativity. The mood was festive under sunny skies, with children dressed in holiday finery or in Santa costumes, and marching bands playing in the streets. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas also visited Bethlehem and said “peace will prevail from the birthplace of Jesus, and we wish everyone peace and happiness”, according to the Palestinian Wafa news agency.