Men, women and children packed Manger Square to wait for the Catholic patriarch, Archbishop Fouad Twal, to arrive at the Church of the Nativity and mark the start of Christmas celebrations.
Twal received guests at his office at the Latin Patriarchate in the Old City of Jerusalem until noon, then he led the annual procession to Bethlehem.
At the outskirts of Bethlehem, a huge metal gate in an 8-foot-high concrete wall that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem opened to admit the patriarch’s motorcade.
On the other side, Palestinian police and officials were waiting to escort the patriarch to Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity.
There, Palestinian boy and girl scouts walked played bagpipes and drums in loud festive music. The patriarch then led short prayers at St. Catherine Church, next to the Nativity.
Elsewhere in Manger Square, people listened to choirs and waited to watch the Midnight Mass on a large screen outside the church.
Palestinian police estimated that 30,000 people were in Bethlehem for the celebrations, including several hundred Christians from the Gaza Strip. Israel granted 550 Palestinians from Gaza special permits to travel to Bethlehem through the Erez crossing. Only Palestinian Christians older than 35 and their children younger than 13 were granted permits.
Twal talked in his Midnight Mass sermon at the Basilica of the Nativity about the Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.