— The Christian faithful flocked to Palestinian-ruled Bethlehem in the West Bank on Wednesday to celebrate Christmas in the town where it all began.
Thousands of pilgrims from around the world converged on the ancient Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem to visit the grotto where tradition says Jesus, the Christian messiah, was born. An hour in line earned just a few minutes in the crowded grotto, but the faithful said it is a spiritual experience that was worth the wait.
Eliatzur Esaku came from Lagos, Nigeria. “I feel so happy and it is a big grace for me and my people to be here for Christmas because this is where Jesus was born," Esaku said. So it’s a big opportunity for me to be here. It’s a big thing to be part of Christianity and also to be in this church to pray, and I believe our prayers will be answered.”
A long period of relative calm in the West Bank made for a big turnout. And that was good news for Palestinian shopkeepers in Manger Square, like Joseph Jacoman. “[It is a] very nice Christmas. All the people are making nice decorations. It’s a good season. This year is better than last and last,” he said.
This is the first Christmas in five years that Israel and the Palestinian Authority have been conducting peace talks. But Palestinians here are skeptical. Jacoman said there is little to show since the Oslo peace Accords of 1993. “I think they are peace talking many years. Nothing is improved since 20 years," he noted. "Every time talking, talking but nothing [is] better. We hope one time they do something. We are waiting.”
In his Christmas sermon, Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in the Holy Land, called on Israel and the Palestinians to make peace. Twal, a Palestinian, said the message of Christmas is love and reconciliation.
Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad Twal arrives at the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, Dec. 24, 2013.
Girls wearing traditional Palestinian costumes take part in a Christmas procession at Manger Square in front of the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, Dec. 24, 2013.
Christian pilgrim worshippers from Nigeria pray in the Grotto of the Church of Nativity in the West Bank town of Bethlehem on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 2013.
Christian worshippers from Nigeria pray at the Church of Nativity in the West Bank town of Bethlehem on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 2013.
Visitors light candles in the Church of the Nativity ahead of Christmas in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, Dec. 23, 2013.
A nun walks inside the Church of the Nativity ahead of Christmas in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, Dec. 23, 2013.