Photo: Catholic Mass in Bethlehem
Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus is celebrating its Merriest Christmas in Years as tourists once again flock to the town. Officials say the turnout will be the largest in over 10 years, largely due to the fact that Isreali-Palestinian violence has drastically decreased.
Pat Olmsted, a 64-year-old teacher from Sugar Land, Texas, was celebrating her first Christmas in Bethlehem and broke into tears as she stood in Manger Square. “It just gives me a whole true meaning of the Bible. As I read the pages, it will mean so much more to me,” she said.
The Roman Catholic Church’s top clergyman in the Holy Land, Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal, crossed through the gate in a traditional midday procession from Jerusalem.
Later, he celebrated Midnight Mass, the peak of the holiday’s events in town.
In his homily, Twal issued a conciliatory call for peace between religions and urged an “intensification” of dialogue with Jews and Muslims.
“We need to unite and integrate the many values we have in common: prayer, piety, fasting, almsgiving, and ethical values,” he said.
“Our hope for Christmas is that Jerusalem not only become the capital of two nations, but also a model for the world, of harmony and coexistence of the three monotheistic religions,” he added. “During this Christmas season, may the sound of the bells of our churches drown the noise of weapons in our wounded Middle East, calling all men to peace and the joy.”
Today, just one-third of Bethlehem’s 50,000 residents are Christian, down from about 75 percent in the 1950s. The rest are Muslims.
The Christian population throughout the Middle East has shrunk in recent decades as people flee violence or search for better opportunities abroad. Christians make up roughly 2 percent of the population in the Holy Land.