BETLEHEM: Pierbattista Pizzaballa, apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, blesses worshippers ahead of Christmas Eve mass at the Church of the Nativity in the biblical West Bank city of Bethlehem yesterday.-AFP

BETHLEHEM: Pilgrims from around the world gathered yesterday in the biblical city of Bethlehem, revered by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus, to celebrate Christmas in the Holy Land. Thousands of Palestinians and foreigners converged on the "little town" in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, with Christmas Eve festivities taking place in and around the Church of the Nativity.

Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem and the most senior Roman Catholic official in the Middle East, travelled from the holy city to Bethlehem yesterday afternoon. He was later to lead midnight mass at the church, with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas expected to attend. Bethlehem is close to Jerusalem, but cut off from the holy city by Israel's separation barrier.

After crossing through the wall, Pizzaballa said it was a difficult time but there was reason for "hope". "We see in this period the weakness of politics, enormous economic problems, unemployment, problems in families-so when we look at this reality, we could say that there is nothing to hope for," he said. "On the other side, when I visit families, parishes, communities, I see a lot of commitment… for the future.

"Christmas is for us to celebrate the hope." In the square outside the church, a few thousand people watched in the winter sun as Palestinian scouts paraded to the sound of drums. A group of 20 New Zealanders sang carols in front of the 15-metre Christmas tree.

In the morning tourists queued to visit the grotto inside the church, believed to be the exact site where Jesus was born. "I feel really emotional to be here today, it's wonderful," said Germana, an Italian travelling with her husband and two children.

'Bumpy year'

The first church was built on the site of Jesus's birth in the fourth century, though it was replaced after a fire in the sixth century. This year celebrations were bolstered by the return of a wooden fragment believed to be from the manger of Jesus.

Sent as a gift to Pope Theodore I in 640, the piece had been in Europe for more than 1,300 years before being returned last month, Francesco Patton, chief custodian for the Holy Land, said. "We venerate the relic because (it) reminds us of the mystery of incarnation, to the fact that the son of God was born of Mary in Bethlehem more than 2,000 years ago," Patton told AFP at the time.

In the square by the church, Palestinian tourism minister Rula Maayah told AFP it had been a good year, with 3.5 million tourists visiting the city. But fewer Christians from the Gaza Strip were in attendance than in previous years, as Israel had granted permits to just around 300 of the some 900 people who applied, said Wadie Abunassar, an adviser to church leaders in the Holy Land.

The Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza are separated by Israeli territory and crossing between them requires hard-to-get permits. Around the world, people were getting ready to ring in the Christmas festivities. In her traditional Christmas Day message, Britain's Queen Elizabeth II was to describe 2019 as "quite bumpy" after a year of crises in the royal family. In France, travellers were meanwhile facing more woe in the bitter nearly-three week strike by train drivers fighting government pension reform plans.

The walkout has ruined Christmas travel plans for tens of thousands of French ticket holders unable to reach loved ones in time for Christmas Day. A frantic scramble for gift promotions left a dozen people injured in an Australian mall. And in the central Philippines, where Christmas is widely celebrated among the country's Catholics, thousands of people were warned to leave their homes as a severe tropical storm approached. -AFP