The largest number of pilgrims in a decade gathered in Bethlehem to celebrate Christmas, with tens of thousands flocking to the Church of the Nativity for prayers on Saturday morning, while violence in Nigeria and the Philippines marred Christmas Day festivities.
Israeli military officials, who coordinate movement in and out of the West Bank, said over 100,000 pilgrims have come to the town since Christmas Eve, compared to about 50,000 last year.
They said this was the merriest Christmas in Bethlehem in years and the highest number of visitors for the holiday in a decade. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to talk to the media.
In contrast, Christians were marking a sombre Christmas in Baghdad in the face of repeated violence by militants. Archbishop Matti Shaba Matouka said he hoped Iraqi Christians would not flee the country.
Hundreds gathered at a Baghdad church where Muslim extremists in October took more than 120 people hostage in a standoff that ended with 68 dead. Church walls were pockmarked with bullet holes, plastic sheeting covered gaps where glass windows used to be and small pieces of dried flesh and blood remain stuck to the ceiling.
After the siege, about 1,000 Christian families fled to the relative safety of northern Iraq, according to U.N. estimates.
“No matter how hard the storms blows, love will save us,” Archbishop Matouka told the gathered faithful.
Christmas was marred by violence in the Philippines. A bomb exploded during Christmas Day Mass at a police chapel in southern Philippines, wounding a priest and five churchgoers.
The improvised explosive was hidden in the ceiling of the chapel, which is located inside a police camp in Jolo town on Jolo Island, a stronghold of al-Qaida-linked militants.
In Nigeria, at least 11 people have been killed in multiple Christmas Eve blasts in the country’s central region that was violently divided between Christians and Muslims.
Gregory Yenlong, the Plateau State information commissioner, told The Associated Press on Saturday that he counted 11 dead bodies at two sites rocked by bombs in the city of Jos. Mr. Yenlong said nobody has claimed responsibility for the attacks in the city, which has long been plagued with religious violence.
In Rome, Pope Benedict XVI ushered in Christmas Eve with an evening Mass on Friday amid heightened security concerns following the package bombings at two Rome embassies and Christmas Eve security breaches at the Vatican the past two years.
Pope Benedict processed down the central aisle of St. Peter’s Basilica at the start and end of the Mass without incident, stopping several times to kiss babies, bodyguards on either side of him.
During the same service in 2008 and 2009, a mentally disturbed woman lunged at the pope as he walked down the aisle — and last year she managed to pull him to the ground.
In Bethlehem, pilgrims and tourists posed for pictures and enjoyed the morning sunshine Saturday while others thronged the Church of the Nativity for mass. Worshippers also packed the Roman Catholic church built next to the grotto where the traditional site of Jesus’ birth is enshrined.
Pilgrims have slowly been returning to Bethlehem since violence between Palestinians and Israelis slowed down over the past five years. The town’s 2,750 hotel rooms were booked solid for Christmas week, and town officials say more hotels are under construction.
The warm weather, a sharp decline in Israeli-Palestinian violence and an economic revival in the West Bank all added to the holiday cheer this year. Only one-third of Bethlehem’s 50,000 residents are Christian today, down from about 75 per cent in the 1950s. The rest are Muslims.
On his first visit to Bethlehem, Greg Reihardt, 49, from Loveland, Colorado, said it was “a really inspiring thing to be in the birthplace of Jesus at Christmas.” Father Juan Maria Solana, who had come from Jerusalem, said the beautiful day was “a good sign of serenity, a good sign of peace.”
Palestinian tourism police chief Ziad Khatib said he hasn’t seen this many Christmas visitors in 10 years and added: “We have passed the bad years.”
Signs of the violence are still present, however. Visitors entering the town must cross through a massive metal gate in the separation barrier Israel built between Jerusalem and Bethlehem during a wave of Palestinian attacks last decade.
The Israeli military said it attacked a “terror training facility” and a weapon smuggling tunnel in Gaza overnight. The coastal area’s Hamas rulers said nobody was hurt in the Israeli airstrikes.
Some 500 members of the Gaza Strip’s small Christian minority left the blockaded territory on Thursday for the festivities in Bethlehem. About 3,500 Christians live in Gaza among 1.5 million Muslims. Relations were traditionally good but there have been incidents of violence against Christians since the Islamic militant group Hamas took control three years ago.
Christians only make up for about 2 per cent of the population in the Holy Land today, compared to about 15 per cent in 1950. Like many other Christian communities across the Middle East, many have migrated to flee political tensions or in search of better economic opportunities.
The Roman Catholic Church’s top clergyman in the Holy Land, Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal, issued a conciliatory call for peace between religions during his homily in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve and urged an “intensification” of dialogue with Jews and Muslims.
“During this Christmas season, may the sound of the bells of our churches drown the noise of weapons in our wounded Middle East, calling all men to peace and the joy,” he said.