By Robert Berger
Thousands of pilgrims have converged on the West Bank town of Bethlehem for Christmas Eve celebrations hosted by the Palestinian Authority.
Palestinian boy and girl scouts kicked off festive Christmas Eve celebrations with a march through Manger Square. It was a combination of Palestinian nationalism and religion. The square was decked out with Christmas trees and lights, as well as Palestinian flags and a big poster of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Religious ceremonies began with the arrival of the Latin Patriarch, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in the Holy Land.
The patriarch led a procession of priests and monks in white robes into the ancient Church of the Nativity, which is built over the spot where it is believed Mary gave birth to Jesus.
Thousands of pilgrims from around the world thronged to Bethlehem to join the celebrations and visit the Grotto of the Nativity. Abbe Itohan Mericy came from Rivers State, Nigeria.
“By seeing the places I had read [about] in the Bible, it gives me joy. The birthplace of Jesus Christ is a wonderful feeling, so it gives me a sense of fulfillment,” said Mericy.
For Palestinian Christians, like Noel Yaakoub Yasser, the holiday is bittersweet.
“I feel so happy. I love to be here on Christmas,” said Yasser.
But Bethlehem is surrounded by Israel’s separation barrier, which was built about eight years ago after a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings. Yasser said the wall is collective punishment.
“What can we do? They built the wall and nobody can stop them. It feels like a prison,” said Yasser.
Bethlehem Mayor Victor Betarseh said he hopes that Christmas next year will be celebrated in an independent Palestinian state.