Jesus birthplace marks Christmas in restive Mideast

Jesus birthplace marks Christmas in restive Mideast

20131224_bethlehem.jpg

A Palestinian marching band parades during a Christmas procession at Manger Square in front of the Church of the Nativity, the site revered as the birthplace of Jesus, in the West Bank town of Bethlehem December 24, 2013.

BETHLEHEM, Palestinian Territories - Thousands of worshippers and tourists from around the world flocked Tuesday to Jesus's birthplace in Bethlehem, as the Middle East reels from conflicts and Pope Francis celebrates his first Christmas mass.

Jerusalem's Latin patriarch will lead a procession to Bethlehem and celebrate midnight mass in the holy city attended by Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas and other dignitaries.

Christmas this year comes as conflicts and natural disasters have stricken Christians worldwide, from the historic Syrian town of Maalula where residents still speak Jesus's ancient Aramaic, to typhoon-hit Tacloban in the Philippines.

Filipinos who survived the deadly typhoon Haiyan defiantly prepared to celebrate Christmas in their ruined communities Tuesday where hogs were being roasted, festive trees adorned streets and churches were filled to overflowing.

"Nothing can stop us from welcoming Christmas even though we have lost our home," 63-year-old butcher's wife Ellen Miano told AFP in Tacloban.

In a Christmas message last week, Fuad Twal, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, spoke of the sufferings of the Palestinian people and the vicious conflict that has rocked Syria for 33 months.

Twal, the top Catholic cleric in the Holy Land, said Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that resumed in July after a three-year hiatus were being hampered by Israeli settlement construction.

"As long as this problem is not resolved, the people of our region will suffer," said Twal, adding the Israel-Palestinian conflict was "a major obstacle" to Middle East stability.

The patriarch also called for a ceasefire in Syria, where bloody fighting between regime forces and rebels trying to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad has killed an estimated 126,000 people since March 2011.

"As the Syrian problem cannot be resolved by the force of arms," he said.

Become a fan on Facebook