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In Bethlehem, Palestinians celebrate new ‘birth’

Patriarch hails UN recognition, talks of statehood

Clergy gathered Monday in Bethlehem outside the Church of the Nativity, the site revered as the birthplace of Jesus,

Ammar Awad/Reuters

Clergy gathered Monday in Bethlehem outside the Church of the Nativity, the site revered as the birthplace of Jesus,

BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Christmas Eve was an especially joyous one for Palestinians this year, with the hardships of the Israeli occupation that clouded previous celebrations eased by the United Nations’ recent recognition of an independent state of Palestine.

As they do every year, thousands of Christians from the world over packed Manger Square in Bethlehem to celebrate the birth of Jesus in this ancient West Bank town.

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In his annual pre-Christmas homily, the top Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land, Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal, said 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 Twal, a Palestinian citizen of Jordan, at his office in Jerusalem’s Old City.

Then he set off in a procession for Bethlehem. There, he was reminded that life on the ground for Palestinians has not changed since the UN recognized their state last month in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

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.

On Monday, hundreds of people greeted 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, the packed square, resplendent with strings of lights, decorations, and a 55-foot Christmas tree, took on a festival atmosphere as pilgrims mixed with residents. 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. 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 and visiting churches.

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,’’ Twal said during the Mass.

In Rome, Pope Benedict XVI presided over the traditional Christmas Eve Mass in a St. Peter’s Basilica that was packed with the faithful.

The ceremony began at 10 p.m. Monday instead of at the traditional midnight start time. The schedule was changed at the Vatican years ago to let the 85-year-old pontiff rest before he is to deliver a Christmas Day speech hours later from the basilica’s central balcony.

A smiling Benedict, dressed in gold-colored vestments, waved to photo-snapping pilgrims and applauding churchgoers as he glided up the center aisle toward the ornate main altar of the basilica on a wheeled platform guided by white-gloved aides.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas also visited Bethlehem on Monday and said ‘‘peace will prevail from the birthplace of Jesus, and we wish everyone peace and happiness,’’ according to the official Palestinian Wafa news agency.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel issued a Christmas greeting, too, wishing Christians ‘‘a year of security, prosperity, and peace.’’

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.

The Israeli Tourism Ministry predicted a 25 percent drop from that level this year, after last month’s clash between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza.

Foreign tourists heading to Bethlehem must pass through Israel or the Israel-controlled border crossing into the West Bank from Jordan.

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