Pilgrims from around the world gathered on Tuesday in the biblical city of Bethlehem, revered by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus, to celebrate Christmas in the Holy Land.
Thousands of Palestinians and foreigners converged on the “little town” in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, with Christmas Eve festivities taking place in and around the Church of the Nativity.
Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem and the most senior Roman Catholic official in the Middle East, travelled from the holy city to Bethlehem on Tuesday afternoon.
He was later to lead midnight mass at the church, with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas expected to attend.
Bethlehem is close to Jerusalem, but cut off from the holy city by Israel’s separation barrier.
After crossing through the wall, Pizzaballa said it was a difficult time but there was a reason for “hope”.
“We see in this period the weakness of politics, enormous economic problems, unemployment, problems in families — so when we look at this reality, we could say that there is nothing to hope for,” he said.
“On the other side, when I visit families, parishes, communities, I see a lot of commitment… for the future.
“Christmas is for us to celebrate the hope.”
In the square outside the church, a few thousand people watched in the winter sun as Palestinian scouts paraded to the sound of drums. A group of 20 New Zealanders sang carols in front of the 15-metre Christmas tree.
In the morning tourists queued to visit the grotto inside the church, believed to be the exact site where Jesus was born.
“I feel really emotional to be here today, it’s wonderful,” said Germana, an Italian travelling with her husband and two children.