Bethlehem 2010. Courtesy: USA Today/Pool photo by Fadi Arouri
BETHLEHEM, West Bank - If there is a heart of the Christmas celebration, it's here.
have gathered in the cradle of Christianity on the site where Jesus is
believed to have been born - the West Bank city of Bethlehem. They're
here to kick off Christmas celebrations.
Christian; I am not a religious person, but I came today to experience
Christmas in Bethlehem," said Vaclav Dostal of the Czech Republic. "It's
good to see the coexistence between Muslims and Christians in
Tourists, Christian pilgrims and residents
packed Manger Square to watch choral groups, performers, clowns, giant
Santas and marching bands from across the West Bank. Children wearing
Santa outfits and Christmas-themed costumes held balloons as they
crowded outside the Church of Nativity to see the arrival of the Latin
Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal.
Palestinian police snipers flanked the rooftops, and police heavily guarded the crowd as Twal arrived.
erection of Israel's separation barrier with the West Bank, a high
concrete wall around the town, did not stop the procession today, which
began in south Jerusalem at Mar Elias Monastery.
Three gates in
the concrete wall were opened for Christmas to allow the procession from
Jerusalem to enter Bethlehem.
Twal was welcomed by Mayor of Bethlehem Vera Baboun.
gave a message spreading peace and love to all the nations of the
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, European Union
Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton and Jordanian Foreign Minister
Nasser Judeh arrived later on Christmas Eve to participate in the
celebrations and attend the annual midnight mass.
spectators was Angela Freeland from Seattle, who said that as a
Christian, visiting Bethlehem has long been a priority for her.
Elisabeth von Trapp performed on stage at Manger Square. The Sound of Music film was based on her father and grandfather.
been reacquainting myself all these years later - I wanted to reawaken
those memories," said von Trapp, a Vermont native. "I've been wishing to
come back in the last five years. I would like to see Palestinians
develop in a courageous and confident way. I think what's hard is to put
aside grievances, but the heart is resilient."
Her husband, Edward Hall, said he saw Bethlehem as a thriving place despite its struggles over the past 10 years.
"I've enjoyed meeting Palestinians who are so gracious, hospitable and funny despite all the hardships," Hall said. "It's a thriving, vibrant place, I wasn't prepared for the wall or the expanse since I was here 40 years ago."