The acting Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Pierbattista Pizzaballa leads a Christmas midnight mass at Saint Catherine's Church, in the Church of the Nativity, in Bethlehem, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Dec. 25, 2018.
The acting Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Pierbattista Pizzaballa leads a Christmas midnight mass at Saint Catherine's Church, in the Church of the Nativity, in Bethlehem, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Dec. 25, 2018.

BETHLEHEM - The Palestinian Authority has hosted thousands of visitors for Christmas celebrations in the West Bank town of Bethlehem.

Christmas Mass was celebrated at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, attended by many Palestinian Christians. This worshipper had a message of goodwill: “To make peace, that’s the message. For everyone in the world, to make peace.”

Clergymen attend Christmas celebrations at Manger
Clergymen attend Christmas celebrations at Manger Square outside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Dec. 24, 2018.

Bells rang out in Manger Square summoning throngs of pilgrims from around the world to the ancient grotto where tradition says Jesus was born. Gayle Weiland came from California in the United States.

“You know, I believe it’s all energy, and you can feel the energy here. It just transcends. It’s spiritual. I actually am an artist and I paint angels, and I feel like I’m surrounded [by angels],” said Weiland.

FILE - People visit a shop near the Church of the
FILE - People visit a shop near the Church of the Nativity, built atop the site where Christians believe Jesus Christ was born, in the West Bank City of Bethlehem, Dec. 6, 2018.

It was a big turnout of visitors this year and that is good news for Palestinian merchants in Manger Square. Shopkeeper Mary Giacaman offers pilgrims mementos from the Holy Land.

“We sell nativity scenes made from olive wood, we sell Christmas ornaments, anything made of olive wood or mother of pearl; we make it and sell it also,” she said.

Palestinians here complain that Bethlehem is walled off by the Israeli “occupation,” but they say that cannot take the joy out of Christmas.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, second from l
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, second from left in front, attends a Christmas midnight mass at Saint Catherine's Church, in the Church of the Nativity, traditionally recognized by Christians to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ.

“It’s always a Merry Christmas; it’s always a new hope for all the people. We pray it will bring peace in our hearts, in our home, in our country, all over the world,” said Giacaman.

In a land torn by conflict, Bethlehem remains a symbol of hope for better times.

IN PICTURES: Christmas Around the Word

View full gallery