Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Michel Sabbah called for justice and freedom for Palestinians at a midnight Christmas Mass in Christ's birthplace attended by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Sabbah also called for tolerance at a time when over 350 people have died in the Palestinian Intifada or uprising in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Israel, mostly Palestinians.
Bethlehem showed few signs of cheer on Christmas Eve, with the devastating effects of a three-month cycle of bloodshed and a punishing Israeli blockade nowhere more in evidence than in the birthplace of Jesus.
At the start of his sermon the prelate welcomed Arafat who has attended every midnight Mass since 1995, the year when the Palestinian Authority assumed control of Bethlehem under the autonomy accords.
Arafat, wearing his uniform of olive green coat and keffiyeh headdress, was warmly applauded as he made his entry into Saint Catherine's church in the middle of the Mass.
Apparently tired, the Palestinian leader sat in the front row of the Franciscan church. His wife Suha, who normally accompanies him, was absent.
It was the first time Arafat, who lives in Gaza, had come to the West Bank since just after the start of the uprising on September 28.
Sabbah, who is of Palestinian origin, declared: "We are Christians in a Palestinian society that is claiming its freedom."
Speaking of "difficult times," the patriarch stressed the importance of this "trial which is part of the grace of the Jubilee" and appealed for acceptance of "all the human realities: a Palestinian Arab, Christian and Muslim reality and a Jewish reality."
Turning to Pope John Paul II's Jubilee pilgrimage to the Holy Land in March, Sabbah said the "message of friendship, justice and peace" brought by the pontiff "has not yet borne its fruits for some."
Thousands of kilometers (miles) away on Saint Peter's Square, John Paul prayed at the Christmas Eve Mass for peace in the Middle East, telling Christian communities there the Church shared their anxiety over the region's destiny.
"I think with concern of the Holy Places, and especially of the town of Bethlehem where sadly, because of the troubled political situation, the evocative rites of Christmas cannot be celebrated with their usual solemnity," the pontiff said at the midnight mass.
The town, the showcase for Palestinian millennium celebrations this time last year, has cancelled most celebrations on the 2,000th anniversary of Jesus's birth, with tourist numbers a fraction of those in Christmas 1999.
The Israeli army announced Sunday that visitors would be able to come to Bethlehem for Christmas "according to the security situation," but gave no other details.
Israel has imposed a blockade on Bethlehem and other Palestinian towns since the uprising broke out in late September, crippling the economy and preventing tourists and pilgrims visiting the town.
There were few pilgrims inside the Church of the Nativity, built over the grotto where Christian tradition says Jesus was born.
Outside in Manger Square, helium balloons sold by Palestinian children provided the only splash of color as the rain poured down -- BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AFP)
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