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Christmas Eve pilgrims gather in Bethlehem

AFP

Christians from across the world are gathering in the West Bank town of Bethlehem to mark Christmas Eve in the place they believe Jesus was born.

Celebrations culminate with midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity.

Thousands of pilgrims earlier crowded into Manger Square to watch a procession led by the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal.

The most senior Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land said he hoped 2015 was “better than this difficult year”.

“I hope next year there will be no separation wall and I hope we will have bridges of peace instead,” he added. “Peace comes from justice and we have a cause which we hope will be solved soon.”

He appeared to be referring to barrier Israel is building in and around the West Bank, which separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem, and the Palestinians’ submission to the UN Security Council of a draft resolution that would set a 12-month deadline to reach a peace deal with Israel.

The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal, waves as he passes through the West Bank barrier en route to Bethlehem from Jerusalem on Christmas Eve (24 December 2014)Jerusalem’s Latin Patriarch, Fouad Twal, had to pass through the West Bank barrier to get to Bethlehem
Palestinian activists decorate a Christmas tree with empty tear-gas canisters in Manger Square, BethlehemActivists decorated a tree in Manger Square with empty tear-gas grenades

Patriarch Twal also urged Christians not to forget the residents of Gaza, where up to 19,600 families displaced by the 50-day conflict between Israel and Palestinian militants are still in need of medium- and long-term shelter, and the people of Syria and Iraq, who are struggling to cope with a civil war and the advance of jihadist militants from Islamic State (IS).

On Tuesday, Pope Francis – who prayed at the West Bank barrier and called for an end to the “increasingly unacceptable” Palestinian-Israeli conflict when he visited the region in May – sent a message of solidarity to Christians in the Middle East.

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At the scene: Quentin Sommerville, BBC News, Bethlehem

These are Bethlehem’s biggest two days of the year – the one occasion when, for Christians, it displaces Jerusalem. The Holy Land is the cradle of Christianity, a point Pope Francis made when he was visited earlier this year.

The Pope’s Christmas message to Christians – do not be afraid or ashamed of your faith – comes at a time when Christianity is under threat in the Middle East, like never before.

Islamic State has pushed some of the world’s oldest Christian communities out there homes in northern Iraq. For some, the choice was convert to Islam, or die. So instead, hundreds of thousands fled to Kurdistan. There they remain, sheltering in churches, and schools, with few possessions.

Here in Manger Square there is song, and celebration, but as the Pope himself said, there will be tears and sighs alongside the hymns, as the faithful look towards 2015 with fear for the future of communities that have existed here for 2,000 years.

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Procession through Manger Square in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve (24 December 2014)Scout troops played bagpipes as Christians processed through Manger Square

In a letter, the Pope wrote that for them, “the music of your Christmas hymns will also be accompanied by tears and sighs”.

Without mentioning IS by name, he spoke about “the work of a newer and disturbing terrorist organisation, of previously unimaginable dimensions, which has perpetrated all kinds of abuses and inhuman acts”.

“It has particularly affected a number of you, who have been brutally driven out of your native lands, where Christians have been present since apostolic times,” he added.

But the Pope said the presence of Christians in the Middle East was precious and he urged them to work with their neighbours to reiterate that Islam is a religion of peace.

In Baghdad, Chaldean Patriarch Louis Sako said about 150,000 Christians had been displaced since IS launched an offensive in northern Iraq in June and told members of religious minorities that they would have to convert to Islam, pay a special tax or leave.

Source:BBC

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