Latin Patriarch of the Holy Lands, Michel Sabbah, reached Bethlehem on
Christmas Eve day, the most celebratory time that the West Bank city
sees all year. Thousands of people crowded into Manger Square for the
annual scouts parades, drum corps, and children's festivities. This is
the main event for the Christmas season. After the all night Mass, the
city is quiet.
The main event was when the Patriarch arrives from Bethlehem at around 2:00 in the afternoon. He passed through the streets of Bethlehem, flanked with Palestinians, welcoming his procession. Priests and members of the clergy were in and outside of the Church of Nativity, while others passed through the streets with the Patriarch.
Local organizations, charities, school groups, citizens and political parties all made a showing as well for the first stop. The Patriarch arrived at the Mar Elias Monastery in Beit Jala, just up the hill from Bethlehem. The Beit Jala Mayor, Raji Zeidan, received Sabbah, as did the local clergy and residents.
After Beit Jala the Patriarchal parade continued its route in the direction of Rachel's Tomb, the northern area of the city completely overtaken by Israeli forces. He passed behind the Wall with a special permit obtained from the Israeli government to be able to travel the few kilometers from Jerusalem and into Bethlehem. The procession then continued along the route believed to be traveled by Mary and Joseph to the place that is now the Church of Nativity.
Upon arrival in Manger Square Patriarch, Sabbah listened to the songs of the scouts and then religious and national tidings as Palestinian flags waved in abundance. Bethlehem's Mayor, Dr. Victor Batarsa, and the Bethlehem District Governor Salah Tamari, the Minister of Tourism and National Security Forces leader, in addition to the Chief of Police Issa Hijo, were in attendance. Bethlehem resident, Palestinian Legislative Council member and former Director of the Palestinian Prisoner Society, Issa Qaraqa' stood with fellow PLC members Fuad Kukali, Fayez Al Sakka and Mohmmad Khalil in welcoming the Patriarch.
Thousands of people, the local journalists, and the foreign tourists and journalists, all gathered around hoping for a glimpse or a photo of "the elderly man in the pink hat," as he is sometimes described. The Patriarch presided over Midnight Mass in Church on the occasion of the birth of Jesus in that spot, the occupied city of Bethlehem.
Upon his arrival earlier in the day at the Rachel's Tomb area of northern Bethlehem, Patriarch Sabbah said, “The letter of the birth this year is the message of peace and friendship and security and stability, for the Israelis to work hard with the Palestinians to stop the violence, for the Palestinians to stop the internal fighting and unite to put an end to the Israeli occupation. To choose the road of internal killing reinforces the occupation. This Israeli Wall that surrounds us increases hatred and animosity. People always need to establish bridges, and not walls.”
He said the he hoped he and the Palestinians would not need to obtain permission from the Israelis to travel within the people's own land and for “peace to reign, not permits.”
The Governor of Bethlehem said that the Palestinian people could face any challenge the Israelis presented, remain steadfast, and resist until justice prevails.