BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Thousands of pilgrims and tourists from around the world, together with locals, began Christmas Eve celebrations in Jesus’ traditional birthplace of Bethlehem.
The faithful braved chilly weather outside Manger Square in the biblical West Bank town as traditional Christmas songs like “Jingle Bells” played in Arabic over loudspeakers. One visitor from Louisville, Kentucky, says it’s “very meaningful” to be in the place “where everything started.”
Meanwhile, the top Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land says he’s glad “at least the military war” in the Syrian city of Aleppo is over and that Christians there can celebrate Christmas “without fear.”
And in Vatican City, Pope Francis urged Christians to celebrate the birth of Jesus by thinking about the plight of today’s children, bemoaning how some must escape bombs or flee in migrant boats and how others are prevented from being born at all.
Francis celebrated a somber Christmas Eve Mass in a packed St. Peter’s Basilica, processing to the altar behind cardinals draped in golden vestments as the Sistine Chapel choir sang “Gloria” and the church bells rang out across Rome.
Francis spent much of the year denouncing the Islamic extremist violence that has driven Christians from Mideast communities that date to the time of Christ. He has also demanded Europe in particular do more to welcome refugees, saying Jesus himself was a migrant who deserved more than being born in a manger. And he has called out the wasteful ways of the wealthy when children and the poor die of hunger every day.
Saturday’s late night Mass is the first major event of the Christmas season for Francis, which will include his noon blessing on Christmas day.