- Associated Press - Monday, December 24, 2012

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) — Thousands of Christians from the world over packed Manger Square in Bethlehem on Monday 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 recent recognition by the United Nations 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, which is 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. “Please continue to fight for a just cause to achieve peace and security for the people of the Holy Land.”

In his pre-Christmas homily, Patriarch 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 Patriarch Twal, a Palestinian citizen of Jordan, at the patriarchate’s headquarters in Jerusalem’s Old City.

He then 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 U.N. recognized their state last month in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

Patriarch 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 Patriarch 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.

After nightfall, a packed Manger Square, resplendent with strings of lights, decorations and a 55-foot Christmas tree, took on a festival atmosphere as pilgrims mixed with locals.

A choral group from the Baptist Church in Jerusalem performed carols on one side of the square, handing out sheets of lyrics and encouraging others to sing along with such songs as “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”

Vendors sold balloons, cotton candy and corn on the cob; bands played Christmas tunes; and tourists packed cafes that are quiet most of the rest of the year. Pilgrims from around the world wandered the streets as they sang Christmas carols and visited churches.

Devout Christians said it was a moving experience to be so close to the origins of their faith.

“It’s a special feeling to be here; it’s an encounter with my soul and God,” said Joanne Kurczewska, a professor at Warsaw University in Poland, who was visiting Bethlehem for a second time at Christmas.

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