Latin Patriarch Michael Sabbah said, on Saturday evening, after arriving in Bethlehem that Israel should remove its Separation wall which is surrounding the Holy City, and transforming it into a big prison.
Sabbah arrived in Bethlehem along with several priests and said that Christmas message this year is a message of joy, a message wishing the residents, Muslims and Christian peace and tranquility.
Thousands of residents packed Manger Square to watch Sabbah, the top Roman Catholic official in the Holy Land, entering to Bethlehem for the Christmas celebrations.
Holiday spirit returned to Bethlehem for the first time in six years as hundreds of pilgrims from around the world packed the town of Jesus’ birth for Christmas Eve celebrations.
Lining the streets on a crisp, windy day, pilgrims gathered in Manger Square – near the Church of the Nativity, built over the grotto where Jesus was born – to watch a procession of different scout groups, playing their bagpipes and drums while marching towards the church.
Heavy winds blew the hats off the heads of boy scouts and police officers and knocked down metal security barriers. Yet the streets remained packed with visitors excited about spending Christmas in one of the holiest Christian places.
More than 30,000 people were expected to flock to Bethlehem in what would be the largest turnout since fighting erupted in September 2000, but the bleak gray concrete slabs of Israel’s Separation Wall at the entrance to town provided a constant reminder of the lingering conflict.
Christmas songs and psalms rang out in the courtyard outside the Church of the Nativity, lending a spiritual air to the town. The crowd proceeded to the church, with some heading straight to the grotto, their heads bent in prayer. Others stayed to listen to Sabbah lead the services at the nearby St. Catherine’s Church.
In the first years after fighting erupted, an Israeli army siege and high death tolls among both Israelis and Palestinians put a damper on Christmas.
Crowds that numbered dozens of thousands during the boom years of the mid-1990s dwindled to just a few hundreds. Even the late Palestinian leader Yaser Arafat was barred from attending the celebration, confined by Israel to his headquarters in Ramallah, until his sickness, and death.
Instead, a black-and-white headdress – similar to the one he traditionally wore – was draped across the chair he usually occupied.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, elected in January to succeed late Arafat, plans to join the Bethlehem celebrations and attend Midnight Mass.
“It will be joyful and a very Merry Christmas, especially since the president will join us”, said Bethlehem Mayor Victor Batarseh, “There is enough police and security. It will be very peaceful”.
Yet, Israel’s massive West Bank Separation Wall cast a shadow on the celebrations. The structure, which snakes along the boundary with the West Bank, has divided Bethlehem and prevented tourists from walking into town freely.