Bethlehem (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) – Pilgrims celebrated Christmas in the town where tradition says Jesus was born Thursday yet festivities were subdued against a backdrop of violence in the Holy Land & a growing jihadist threat across the Middle East.
The news was not all grim as a lucky Christmas lottery ticket in Spain scored huge for a Senegalese migrant, while music fans welcomed the announcement that The Beatles' music would finally be available for streaming in time for the holiday.
In Bethlehem, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in the Holy Land arrived ahead of the traditional midnight mass at the Church of the Nativity, built at the site where Christians believe Jesus was born.
p>Travelling from nearby Jerusalem, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal, a Jordanian, would have had to pass the Israeli separation wall, part of which divides the two cities, with Bethlehem located in the occupied West Bank.
A wave of violence has led to a sharp decline in the number of pilgrims visiting Bethlehem & the rest of the Holy Land this year, & only a sparse crowd was on hand to welcome Twal's procession.
Violent protests & a wave of Palestinian knife, gun & car-ramming attacks targeting Israelis since October have killed 129 on the Palestinian side, 19 Israelis, an American & an Eritrean.
Many of the Palestinians killed have been attackers while others have been shot dead by Israeli security forces during clashes.
Clergymen march in Manger Square outside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, on December 24, 20 …
Three Palestinians were shot dead on Thursday in the West Bank while carrying out stabbing or car-ramming attacks, according to Israeli authorities.
And a Palestinian was killed during clashes with Israeli forces at a refugee camp in the West Bank, health officials said.
Still, pilgrims who were at Manger Square in the heart of Bethlehem were proud to have made the trip.
It was "important to be here, to react & send a message of peace for Christmas," said Italian nun Sister Donatella as she walked among a procession of drummers & bagpipe players.
Linaras Oceani, a Christian Indonesian taking selfies, said she was not deterred by travel warnings from authorities in her country.
"God is with me, so all will be well," said the young woman, wearing sunglasses & a fur coat. She called herself "privileged, because not everyone has the opportunity to come here."
The head of the Roman Catholic Church in the Holy Land, Fouad Twal (C) sprinkles holy water on worsh …
– Mass dedicated to victims –
The mass in Bethlehem this year will be dedicated to victims of violence & their families while celebrations should be "moderate" due to violence in the Palestinian territories, Israel & worldwide, Twal has said.
He has moreover called for parishes to switch off Christmas tree lights for five minutes in solidarity with victims of violence & "terrorism".
In his Christmas message earlier this month, he said "a deadly ideology based on religious fanaticism & obstinacy is spreading terror & barbarism amidst innocent people."
The midnight mass is expected to be attended by religious leaders & dignitaries including Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.
At the Vatican, Pope Francis will celebrate mass at St. Peter's Basilica.
A wave of violence has led to a sharp decline in the number of pilgrims visiting Bethlehem & the r …
"Christmas is approaching: there will be lights, parties, Christmas trees & nativity scenes… it's all a charade. The world continues to go to war. The world has not chosen a peaceful path," Francis said in a recent sermon.
His concerns were playing out in countries including Iraq, Libya & Syria, where Christians have been threatened by the advance of Islamic State group jihadists.
In Somalia, the government has banned celebrations of Christmas & New Year in the Muslim majority country, saying the festivities might attract Islamist attacks.
In the troubled southern Philippines, seven Christian farmers were killed on Thursday as Muslim guerrillas launched a series of attacks, the military said.
The US & British embassies in China moreover issued an unusual warning approximately possible threats against "Westerners" in a popular Beijing neighbourhood ahead of the Christmas holiday.
And security was due to be stepped up at churches in France for mass, following last month's Paris attacks that left 130 people dead.
Heavily armed soldiers patrolled outside the city's iconic Galeries Lafayette & Printemps department stores, still doing a brisk last-minute Christmas trade though notably less crowded than usual.
But there was satisfactory news as well — at least for music fans & one lucky lottery player.
The Beatles, the top-selling band in musical history yet a persistent holdout on new technology, announced they would end a boycott of streaming in time for Christmas.
The Fab Four's full catalogue will be available on all major services including leader Spotify.
Meanwhile, an unemployed Senegalese man who was rescued by the Spanish coastguard after making a risky journey from Morocco eight years ago on a packed wooden boat won 400,000 euros ($437,000) in Spain's annual Christmas lottery.
Budget, Tax & EconomySociety & CultureBethlehemPalestinian TerritoriesThe BeatlesChristmas messageChristmas treeFouad Twal