Bethlehem celebrates Midnight Mass

December 25th, 2008 - 10:07 am ICT by IANS  

Bethlehem (West Bank), Dec 25 (DPA) The top Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land prayed and called for world peace on Christmas Day early Thursday as he led the traditional Midnight Mass in the West Bank town of Bethlehem.Speaking in his mother tongue Arabic and translating his own words into French to an audience that included Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal called for an end to “bloodshed and ill-treatment and humiliation”.

Only a few hundred invitees and ticket holders were able to attend the mass inside the Church of the Nativity, which has limited seating.

But outside and amid a large presence of Palestinian security forces, hundreds more worshippers and onlookers crowded Bethlehem’s central Manger Square despite the chilly and windy winter night.

International groups performed on a large podium on the square throughout the evening, while earlier in the day, uniformed Palestinian boys and girl scouts played drums and bagpipes as they marched through the historic city centre, lavishly decorated with Christmas lighting and trees.

Twal, a 68-year-old Jordanian who this year succeeded 75-year-old Palestinian Michel Sabah, led his first Midnight Mass. He earlier ushered in the holiday celebrations in the Holy Land by leading the annual Christmas Eve procession from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, located on the West Bank just several kilometres to the south.

Thousands of Christian tourists and pilgrims from all over the world flocked to Bethlehem throughout the day to spend Christmas Eve in the birthplace of Jesus.

With more than a million people visiting throughout 2008 and tens of thousands during this holiday season alone, Bethlehem is witnessing the largest influx of foreign tourists in eight years of Israeli-Palestinian violence which has largely subsided in the West Bank but continues to rage in Gaza.

Hotels in the Biblical city were fully booked and residents said the holiday spirit seemed to have returned after years of bleak seasons.

Midnight Mass also was also held in Nazareth, northern Israel, at its Church of the Annunciation, and was broadcast live on Israeli state television.

But the annual Midnight Mass in Gaza City’s Holy Family church was cancelled to protest against Israel’s economic blockade of the strip and what Palestinian officials said was its refusal to grant sufficient travel permits to members of Gaza’s small Christian community who had wanted to spend Christmas in Bethlehem.

Instead, Gazan Christians held a silent gathering at the Holy Family school, Gaza Latin Church pastor Manuel Musalam said.

“Tonight the sound from the Grotto is stronger than the sound of the canons and the guns,” Twal, in a golden robe and purple skull cap, said in his sermon from Bethlehem, referring to the Grotto of the Nativity, an underground cave beneath the basilica, believed to mark the exact site where Jesus was born.

“Peace is right for all people and it is the perfect solution for all conflicts and differences. War will not bring peace, prisons will not bring stability and walls, no matter how high they are, will not bring security.”

His remark was a clear reference to the controversial security barrier which Israel has built between itself and the West Bank and which also surrounds Bethlehem and cuts it off from Jerusalem.

“God, we need the peace and peace means calm and we need the quiet,” he said in his address, broadcast live on Palestinian television. “You are the only one who can give us this.”

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