A spectacle of peace? Christmas mass wows the world from its original Bethlehem stage
Thousands of Christians from the world over packed Manger Square in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve celebrations, as the Latin Patriarch urged “men of good will” to seek peace in the Middle East.
Festivities in Bethlehem 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.
In Vatican City meanwhile, Pope Benedict XVI also prayed on Monday for peace in the region, including war-torn Syria, “that Christians in those lands where our faith was born may be able to continue living there, that Christians and Muslims may build up their countries side by side in God’s peace.”
Speaking in the traditional midnight mass in Bethlehem, where Christians believe Christ was born, the most senior Roman Catholic bishop in the Middle East appealed for regional peace and issued a special call for efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“Only justice and peace in the Holy Land can reestablish balance and stability in the region and in the world,” Patriarch Fuad Twal told a crowd packed into the St. Catherine church, which adjoins the Church of Nativity.
For Palestinians, this year’s celebration carries special significance, coming as it does after the United Nations granted them upgraded status, and the UNESCO agency designated Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity a World Heritage Site.
“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 sufferings in the Middle East,” said Twal.
He urged the faithful to offer prayers for “our brothers and sisters in Syria, who are dying mercilessly... (and) the people of Egypt who are fighting for national agreement, freedom and equality.
Speaking in front of officials including Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh, Twal praised “those who worked and continue to work for non-violence, peace and justice.”
Abbas, on his visit to Bethlehem, said “peace will prevail from the birthplace of Jesus, and we wish everyone peace and happiness,” according to the official Palestinian Wafa news agency.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a special Christmas greeting too, wishing Christians “a year of security, prosperity and peace.”
After nightfall, a packed Manger Square, resplendent with strings of lights, decorations and a 17-meter (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 songs such as “We Wish You A Merry Christmas.”
Vendors sold balloons, cotton candy and corn on the cob, bands played Christmas songs and tourists packed cafes that are quiet most of the rest of the year. Pilgrims from around the world wandered the streets, singing Christmas carols and visiting 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,” Joanne Kurczewska, a professor at Warsaw University in Poland, who was visiting Bethlehem for a second time at Christmas, told the Associated Press.
Christmas is the high point of the year in Bethlehem, which, like the rest of the West Bank, is struggling to
recover from the economic hard times that followed the violent Palestinian uprising against Israel that broke out in late 2000.
Tourists and pilgrims who were scared away by the fighting have been returning in larger numbers. Last year’s Christmas Eve celebration produced the highest turnout in more than a decade, with some 100,000 visitors, including foreign workers and Arab Christians from Israel.
Do you think Christmas is a show that entertains us in the most grand spectacle at its original stage in the Holy Land? Or is its siginifcance entirely religious and does the occasoin promise peace in the Middle East?