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Christmas crowds gather in Bethlehem

Large crowds have gathered in the biblical town of Bethlehem to begin Christmas Eve celebrations.

Tourists packed Manger Square in a party atmosphere, a BBC correspondent says.

The nearby Church of the Nativity sits on the spot where the Bible says Jesus was born.

Meanwhile in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Pope Francis is celebrating his first Christmas Eve Mass since becoming pontiff.

He earlier made a visit to Pope Emeritus Benedict, 86, and said he found his predecessor looking well.

The number of visitors to Bethlehem has been steadily rising in recent years as peace talks to resolve the Middle East conflict have resumed.

Christian pilgrims pray at the Church of the Nativity during Christmas celebrations in the West Bank biblical town of BethlehemChristian pilgrims pray at the Church of the Nativity during Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem
A Christian pilgrim prays inside the Grotto in the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, during Christmas celebrations in the West Bank biblical town of BethlehemA pilgrim prays inside the church’s grotto. The church is believed by Christians to be the birthplace of Jesus
Young women wearing traditional Palestinian costumes take part in a Christmas procession at Manger Square in front of the Church of the Nativity, the site revered as the birthplace of Jesus, in the West Bank town of BethlehemYoung women wearing traditional Palestinian costumes take part in a procession on Manger Square
Christian pilgrims gather near a Santa Claus dummy at Manger Square in BethlehemFather Christmas also joins in the Christmas celebrations in Manger Square
The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem waves from a car as he is driven through an Israeli checkpoint into Bethlehem to attend Christmas celebrationsThe Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem is driven through an Israeli checkpoint into Bethlehem to attend the celebrations
Pope Francis celebrates Christmas MassPope Francis is celebrating his first Christmas Mass since becoming Pontiff

Despite the erection of Israel’s separation barrier with the West Bank – which appears as a high concrete wall around the town – three gates have been opened for Christmas to allow the Christmas procession led by the Latin Patriarch coming from Jerusalem to enter the city, says the BBC’s Yolande Knell in Bethlehem.

“The message of Christmas is a message of peace, love and brotherhood. We have to be brothers with each other,” said Latin Patriarch Archbishop Fouad Twal – the most senior Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land – as he arrived in town.

His motorcade crawled through Bethlehem’s narrow streets as he stopped to greet visitors.

It took Archbishop Twal nearly 90 minutes to make the short trip to the Church of the Nativity, where thousands of people were gathered ahead of Midnight Mass.

In Vatican City, a life-sized nativity scene has been unveiled in the centre of St Peter’s Square.

The BBC’s Alan Johnston in Rome says thousands of worshippers from across Italy and around the world queued on a cold clear night before entering St Peter’s.

As soaring music filled the air, Pope Francis made his entrance and moved slowly up the central aisle, followed by a retinue of clerics.

In a short homily, Francis said that every Christian can choose between darkness and light, between love and hate.

“If we love God and our brothers and sisters, we walk in the light; but if our heart is closed, if we are dominated by pride, deceit, self-seeking, then darkness falls within us and around us,” he said.

On Christmas Day, Francis will deliver his Christmas message from the basilica’s central balcony overlooking St Peter’s Square.

BBC Rome Correspondent Alan Johnston says the Pope may well use his address to focus attention on places where at the moment there is more darkness than light – such as troubled parts of Africa and the Middle East.


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