Christian faithful flock to Bethlehem
Mass celebrated at Church of the Nativity
December 24, 1997
Web posted at: 8:25 p.m. EST (0125 GMT)
BETHLEHEM, West Bank (CNN) -- Hundreds of the Christian faithful crowded into Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity Wednesday night to attend Christmas Eve Mass, marking the birth of Jesus Christ.
Thousands of other pilgrims braved the crisp weather and congregated nearby in Manger Square, where a huge banner announced, "Joy to the World: Christ is Born." They were serenaded by a variety of choirs from the United States and Latin America.
"It really brings home the real meaning of Christmas when you come here," said Isabel Pareira, a visitor from Montreal.
Near the church, a Finnish school headmaster dressed as Santa Claus handed out striped candies to Palestinian children.
"We came here to give joy to the children and all the people here," said Kari Rantila. "We wish peace everywhere in the world -- and especially here."
"All my life I've thought of the little town of Bethlehem and Mary and I've dreamed about coming and seeing it," said Emily Grant, a visitor from Salt Lake City. "It's not exactly like I pictured it, but in my mind I see it as it used to be."
Christian scripture holds that Jesus' mother, the Virgin Mary, and her husband, Joseph, traveled to Bethlehem from their home in Nazareth during the latter stages of her pregnancy in order to comply with a Roman census.
Joseph was required to go to Bethlehem for the census because it was the city of his birth.
While the couple was in Bethlehem, Jesus was born. According to Christian teaching, Jesus is the son of God.
, the top Roman Catholic clergyman in the region, presided over Mass inside the
Church of the Nativity
, built in the 4th century over a grotto that tradition holds as the birthplace of Jesus.
"We can help our political leaders, and our people, to free themselves from fear, mistrust and to reach the so-long-desired peace," said Sabbah in a Christmas message.
This marks the third Christmas since Bethlehem was turned over to Palestinian control by Israel. The midnight Mass was attended by Palestinian leader
, a Muslim. Though the city is one of the most revered in Christendom, only about a third of the city's 50,000 people are Christians.
Unlike recent years, Palestinian flags and pictures of Arafat were absent from Manger Square -- a concession to Christians who complained that the religious nature of the celebration was being overwhelmed by expressions of Palestinian nationalism.
Palestinian police allowed only worshippers and pilgrims in the area around the church, keeping away Muslim youth thought likely to engage in nationalistic demonstrations.
Approaches to Bethlehem were controlled by Israeli security. People trying to come into Bethlehem through a checkpoint were blocked for a time after a bomb threat was received.
Though Manger Square was full, most of the visitors staying in hotels in Bethlehem were Christian Arabs from Israel. International visitors have shied away from the city -- partially out of security concerns but also because many Holy Land tours provide lodging at hotels in Jerusalem.
After the Oslo peace accords that turned portions of the West Bank over to Palestinian control, there were hopes of a tourism boom. But that hasn't materialized. Unemployment now runs more than 50 percent.
Correspondent Jerrold Kessel and Reuters contributed to this report.