BETHLEHEM, December 24, 2014 (WAFA) – Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad Twal arrived Wednesday at Manager Square in the city of Bethlehem, marking the start of Christmas Eve celebrations which will continue until January of 2015.
Twal was welcomed by the Latin parish priests and representatives of Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Beit Sahour at Bilal Ibn Rabah Mosque site, also known as the Tomb of Rachel, before making his way to Manager Square, where he was greeted by Bethlehem Governor Jebrin al-Bakri, Minister of Tourism Rula Maayah, Bethlehem Mayor Vera Baboun and Presidential Advisor for Christian Affairs Ziad Bandak.
The Patriarch was greeted upon his arrival by thousands of locals, tourists, and Christian pilgrims waiting at Manager Square before making a solemn entry into the Basilica of the Nativity and St. Catherine’s Church.
In order to enter Bethlehem, Twal had to go through a massive metal gate in the Segregation Wall that splits the twin cities of Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
President Mahmoud Abbas, Jordanian Foreign Minister Nidal al-Qatamin and Foreign Ministry Secretary-General Muhammad Masaʻdah are expected to arrive in Bethlehem later Wednesday to attend the annual midnight mass.
The mood is festive in Bethlehem. Despite the increasing tensions that became the norm in the West Bank as a result to an ongoing discriminatory policy that targets both Christians and Muslims, locals and tourists enthusiastically cheered for the scout groups that paraded in front of them while playing bagpipes’ Christmas carols and traditional songs.
Children were dressed in Santa costumes and the Palestine flag was flying high among the heavy crowd. Bethlehem represented at this time of the year the unyielding unity between Christians and Muslims, who indiscriminately arrived to celebrate Christmas.
Palestinian Christians from all across the West Bank flocked to the biblical city, though Palestinian Christians in Gaza weren’t as lucky. They have to apply for special permits in order to make their way to the city, but occasionally not all of family members are granted permits.
In anticipation of Christmas Eve celebrations, police were set on high alert and stationed around the city on the main roads and junctions to ensure security and order.
Commenting on the festive atmosphere, Mayor of Bethlehem Vera Baboun said: “Despite all Israeli occupation practices, including the siege, ongoing land seizure and settlement expansion, the city is flooded with happiness as it welcomes visitors while sending a message of hope and love.”
She added: “The residents of Bethlehem are still seeking justice, hoping that the world will help bring peace. The city faces an undeclared war, the basis of which is the wall, and the isolation of the northern district of the city.”
According to the PLO Negotiations Affairs Department Bethlehem faces multiple challenges including restrictions of movement, limited control over tourism resources, sizable leakages of tourism revenues, high unemployment and brain drain and the disappearing of the Christian community due to the unbearable living conditions.
The Church of the Nativity is administered by three churches, the Roman Catholic Church, the Greek Orthodox Church and the Armenian Church. The Orthodox and Oriental churches will celebrate the feast on December 25 according to the Julian calendar, equivalent to January 7.