The leader of the largest Christian church in the world cast a somber tone over Christmas while thousands of pilgrims to the birthplace of Jesus were buoyed by a slowdown in violence in the Mideast.
In Vatican City, Pope Francis urged Christians to celebrate this holiday by thinking about the plight of children, bemoaning how some must escape bombs or flee in migrant boats and how others are prevented from being born at all.
Meanwhile in Bethlehem, pilgrims and tourists from around the world celebrated the holiday with spirits lifted by a slowdown in recent violence throughout the region and in cool, clear weather.
Francis on Saturday night 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 has 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.
In his homily, Francis urged his flock to reflect on how children today aren’t always allowed to lie peacefully in a cot, loved by their parents as Jesus was, but rather “suffer the squalid mangers that devour dignity.”
Among the indignities, he said, are “hiding underground to escape bombardment, on the pavements of a large city, at the bottom of a boat overladen with immigrants.”
“Let us allow ourselves to be challenged by the children who are not allowed to be born, by those who cry because no one satiates their hunger, by those who do have not toys in their hands, but rather weapons,” he added.
The Mass late Saturday was the first major event of the Christmas season, followed by Francis’ noon Urbi et Orbi (To the city and the world) blessing on Christmas Day.
In another appeal, Francis called for the faithful to not get caught up in the commercialization of Christmas — “when we are concerned for gifts but cold toward those who are marginalized.”
Materialism has “taken us hostage this Christmas,” he said. “We have to free ourselves of it!”
Meanwhile in Bethlehem, thousands of pilgrims and tourists from around the world together with local Christians gathered in the biblical town of Bethlehem to celebrate Christmas Eve in the traditional birthplace of Jesus, with spirits lifted by a slowdown in recent violence and cool, clear weather.
Security was tight in Bethlehem after recent deadly attacks on Christian targets in neighboring Egypt and Jordan by Islamic extremists.
Yet the faithful braved the chilly weather outside the town’s Manger Square as traditional Christmas songs like “Jingle Bells” played in Arabic over loudspeakers and scout groups paraded with bagpipes and sang carols.
Adding to the holiday spirit for the Palestinians, locals celebrated a key diplomatic victory at the United Nations the day before, where the Security Council passed a resolution condemning Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.
Sharolyn Knight, a 28-year-old teacher from Georgia, said she was in Bethlehem for the first time and experiencing mixed emotions. “It’s been sobering and humbling,” because it’s a place with a lot of heavy stuff, she said.
religious and historical. At the same time, disillusioning because there is so much strife in the place where Jesus was born.”
She said she would come back again, maybe next time with her kids.
“It’s very unique, I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Rodrigo Reis, 23, who came from Louisville, Kentucky, “It’s very meaningful, its Christmas time, where everything started.”
Christian clergymen welcomed the top Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land inside the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, the birth place of Jesus Christ, as Christians worldwide begin to prepare to celebrate Christmas this year.
The Rev. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarchate, is the temporary chief clergyman to the local Catholic population. He traveled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on Saturday in a traditional procession. Later, he was to celebrate Midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity, built at the grotto revered as Jesus’ birthplace.
“I wish this joyous atmosphere of Christmas will continue in the year and not just for a few days and I hope the coming year will bring a little more serenity and peaceful relations in our country. We need it,” he said.
“I am happy that the war, at least the military war, in Aleppo is finished and that for the first time in Aleppo the Christians can celebrate without fear the Christmas season. I wish that they can now reconstruct, rebuild the city, not only the infrastructure but also the common relations that was a tradition over there,” he told The Associated Press.
The Syrian government assumed full control of Aleppo earlier this month when rebels, including some Islamic militants, agreed to withdraw from their last remaining enclave after more than four years of heavy fighting over the country’s largest city.
Christmas festivities brought a boost of holiday cheer to Christians in the Holy Land, who make up just a small percentage of the population. The region has which has experienced a wave of Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed that erupted over a year ago. The violence has tapered off in recent months, but has not halted completely.
Rula Maaya, the Palestinian minister of tourism, said all the hotels in Bethlehem were fully booked.