MIDDLE EAST

In a time of tension, Christian faithful gather in Bethlehem

Father and daughter enjoy their first Christmas in Bethlehem as thousands of Christians gather

Esam Awwad lifted his daughter onto his shoulders and joined the crowd gathered around the barricades, waiting for a glimpse of the patriarch as he passed by on his way into the Church of the Nativity.

His daughter, Annamaria, was wearing a tiny Santa suit for her first Christmas.

It was a first for Awwad, 29, also: his first Christmas in Bethlehem's Manger Square, where thousands of revelers gather on Christmas Eve each year to celebrate with a procession, music and a midnight Mass.

Families waited to have their pictures taken in front of the massive Christmas tree next to the church. Vendors wended their way through the square, hawking coffee, Santa hats and balloons adorned with Christmas trees and Santas as well as not-so-seasonal images such as Hello Kitty, Mickey Mouse and Angry Birds.

Balloons periodically escaped from their owners and drifted into the sky above the church — and above the mosque on the opposite end of the square — as the crowd pressed against the barricade, watching a seemingly endless stream of drummers, bagpipers and Scout troupes march by, playing “Jingle Bells” and “Gloria in Excelsius.”

At last, a procession emerged bearing a cross, to greet the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal, as he entered the church. Spectators lifted cellphones and iPads into the air to capture the image. Awwad hoisted his daughter higher so she would see. The patriarch, the top Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land, paused and raised his hand in greeting as he walked by.

Awwad and his wife live in the Palestinian town of Zababdeh, an hour and a half north of Bethlehem. The logistics of navigating Israeli- and Palestinian-controlled roads make travel difficult. So does Awwad's work schedule at a bank in Jenin.

But this year he was able to take the time off to travel, first to Bethlehem and then to Jerusalem, where his wife's family lives. They received a special permit issued by the Israeli government to some Christians living in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Israel to allow them to travel freely during the Christmas season.

“Every time, I see it on TV,” Awwad said. “Because it's the first time to see it here, I feel very, very happy to be here with my wife and my daughter. The first time for me — it's very beautiful.”

A fight that broke out between a troupe of Scout musicians and security forces as the patriarch arrived resulted in three or four people being hospitalized, according to bystanders, but did not mar the day for most of the revelers.

Tens of thousands of pilgrims each year celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem, believed to be the birthplace of Jesus. The majority of the people in the crowd Wednesday were Palestinians, both Christians and Muslims, who also come out to the festivities en masse. A pair of friends from Bethlehem — one Christian, one Muslim — wandered the square together, the Christian in a Santa suit, the Muslim wearing a red clown nose.

Rania Malki-Bandak, director of the Bethlehem Peace Center, a community center in Manger Square, said the Christmas crowd was about as large as usual this year, but included fewer foreigners.

“In times of tension, it is less than the years before, due to potential issues,” Malki-Bandak said.

Tourism in Israel and the Palestinian territories has taken a hit since the summer's war in Gaza between Israel and the Hamas militant group, as well as recent tension in Jerusalem. But for many international travelers, the security situation was no obstacle.

Australian Phil Norton, 27, made his way to Bethlehem after a rough patch in his own life. After his wife left him three months ago, Norton said, he found himself sitting in a room with a group of friends trying to find some positives in the situation.

“I said, 'Well, I don't have to go to Christmas with her family,’” Norton said. Instead, he decided to spend the holidays in Bethlehem. Although he considers himself agnostic, Norton said he was moved to see how much it meant to many of the other people in Manger Square.

“It's more overpowering just in the intensity with which the people around me seem to be engaged,” he said.

Nader and Dina Sammour, Christians from Bethlehem, came to the celebration with their 2-year-old daughter, Yostina. Nader said the day has special meaning for him.

“Every year, our wishes for peace are renewing, because we are living in a critical situation as Christians in the West Bank, or Palestine, and Israel too,” he said. “It's between political leaders, not between people. We wish that one day we will have peace to live together as Muslims, Christians and Jews.”

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