Christmas Eve: Pilgrims flood Jesus’ birthplace in Bethlehem

Christmas Eve: Pilgrims flood Jesus’ birthplace in Bethlehem

People take part in the Christmas Eve celebrations on December 24, 2016 outside the Church of the Nativity, revered as the site of Jesus Christ's birth, in the biblical West Bank town of Bethlehem

Crowds of Palestinians and tourists flocked to Bethlehem's Manger Square near the Church of the Nativity.

Pilgrims on Saturday thronged Bethlehem for Christmas Eve as Europeans worked up some holiday spirit despite tight security in the shadow of the Berlin market attack.

Crowds of Palestinians and tourists flocked to Bethlehem’s Manger Square near the Church of the Nativity, ahead of midnight mass at the site where Christians believe Jesus was born.

Some snapped selfies near a giant Christmas tree and watched the annual Scouts parade in the city, a short drive from Jerusalem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

"This is Christ’s land, the land of peace," said Ramzi Abu Khalil, wearing a Santa hat.

Violence put a damper on celebrations in Bethlehem last year, as a wave of knife, gun and car-ramming attacks by Palestinians targeted Israelis and reduced sharply the number of Christmas visitors.

The unrest has subsided in recent months and, with major Bethlehem hotels booked up, many in the city were optimistic this year’s holiday season would bring more visitors.

Candles, flowers in Berlin

In Europe, many preparing to celebrate were still reeling from Monday’s truck attack on the Berlin Christmas market.

German authorities were working through the holiday season hunting possible accomplices to Tunisian Anis Amri, who was killed Friday in a shootout with Italian police near Milan.

Amri, 24, is believed to have hijacked a truck and used it to mow down holiday revellers at the market on Monday, killing 12 people in an attack claimed by the Islamic State (IS) group.

Tunisia said Saturday it had arrested three men suspected of links with Amri, including his nephew.

Locals and tourists in Berlin visited the Christmas market targeted in the attack, and many took a moment to quietly light a candle or lay flowers for the victims.

"It’s really nice there are so many people here and it’s still open," said Marianne Weile, 56, from Copenhagen.

"So even though you are really sad about what happened you can still keep Christmas. It’s not like this crazy guy ruined it for everybody."

Security was also tight at Milan’s cathedral, where Italian police were out in force and concrete barricades were erected around the historic Piazza del Duomo.

In France, 91,000 police, gendarmes and soldiers were deployed to guard public spaces including churches and markets.

Icy swim, meat auction

Despite the security fears, many were braving winter temperatures to take part in traditional markets and other festivities.

Among them some 30 hardy Slovaks participated in a winter swim at Bratislava’s Zlate Piesky lake, some drinking beer in the nearly freezing water.

In London, meat-lovers converged on Smithfield Market for the traditional Christmas Eve auction at butcher Harts, waving banknotes in the air as they bid on turkeys, pork cuts and rump steaks.

In debt-ridden Greece, Finance Minister Euclide Tsakalotos sent Christmas cards featuring the tight-fisted Dickensian protagonist of "A Christmas Carol", Ebnezer Scrooge, in a jibe to the country’s creditors.

First Aleppo mass in years

Christians in Syria’s Aleppo were looking forward to celebrations after President Bashar al-Assad’s forces retook full control of the city following a rebel withdrawal this week.

Members of Aleppo’s Catholic minority have been preparing for the first Christmas mass in five years at the Old City’s Saint Elias Cathedral, whose roof collapsed under a salvo of rocket fire.

"All our memories are here — this is where we celebrated all our feast days, our joys," said Bashir Badawi, rummaging through rubble for wood and scrap metal to make a crude Nativity scene.

"We want to transform all this destruction into something beautiful."

In Bartalla, near the Iraqi city of Mosul, Christians filled the pews of the fire-scarred Mar Shimoni church for the first service since the town was retaken from IS who seized it in 2014.

The jihadists destroyed crosses at the church but volunteers worked for days to ready it for the service and a new cross was erected for the ceremony.

"I can never describe… our happiness and everything. We feel like life returned," said Nada Yaqub. "We felt that our cross is still around our necks. No one could take it from us."

The patriarch of Iraq’s Chaldean Catholic Church, Louis Raphael Sako, urged international protection for Christians displaced by war so they could return to their homes.

Blast in Philippines

In the mostly Catholic Philippines, a blast ripped through a police car outside a church as worshippers were arriving for a Christmas Eve mass south of Manila, wounding 13 people.

On the east coast, authorities evacuated thousands of people and shut down dozens of ports as a strong typhoon threatened to wallop the area on Christmas Day before moving to the main island of Luzon.

In Manila, gay and transgender inmates held a mock beauty pageant in one of the country’s most overcrowded Manila prisons to cheers from other detainees.

Pope Francis, the leader of the of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, was to deliver his traditional "Urbi et Orbi" (To the City and The World) Christmas message from the balcony of Saint Peter’s Basilica on Sunday.


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