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In Bethlehem, holiday cheer edges out gloom

Thousands of pilgrims from around the world descend on the traditional birthplace of Jesus for the most upbeat Christmas celebrations this Palestinian town has seen in years.
Christian girls wearing Santa hats attend Christmas celebrations in Manger Square, outside the Church of Nativity, traditionally believed by Christians to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, in the West Bank town of Bethlehem on Thursday.Nasser Shiyoukhi / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Thousands of pilgrims from around the world descended on the traditional birthplace of Jesus on Thursday, greeted by choruses, scout troops and rock bands for the most upbeat Christmas celebrations this Palestinian town has seen in years.

But the Holy Land's top Roman Catholic clergyman reminded followers that peace remains elusive, while the threat of sectarian violence in the Islamic world and the lava spilling from a volcano in the Philippines clouded the celebrations for other Christian communities across the globe.

Residents of Bethlehem, hemmed in by an Israeli security barrier and still recovering from years of violence, celebrated their town's annual day in the spotlight along with tourists who came from across the globe. Visitors milled around Manger Square, mingling with clergymen, camera crews and locals hawking food and trinkets.

Christmas in Bethlehem has its incongruous elements — the troops of Palestinian boy scouts who wear kilts and play bagpipes in one of the town's holiday traditions, for example, or the inflatable Santa Clauses hanging from church pillars and storefronts looking out of place and overdressed in this Middle Eastern town with not a snowflake in sight.

Hanna Pioli, 23, and her sister Katherine, 25, were spending the holiday far from their hometown of Salt Lake City, Utah.

The sisters miss celebrating a "white Christmas" at home and were taken aback by the warm weather, Katherine Pioli said, but still thought Bethlehem was the best place for Christians to spend this day.

Jeffrey Lynch, 36, a sanitation worker from New York City, was taking a tour through the Church of the Nativity, the fourth-century Crusader era structure built atop the grottos that mark the spot believed to be the birthplace of Jesus.

"It's a miracle being here on Christmas Eve. It's a lifetime opportunity. I wish everybody could be here," he said.

Elusive peace
But the Holy Land's top Roman Catholic cleric, Latin patriarch Fouad Twal, reminded listeners in a holiday address that peace remains out of reach. "The wish that we most want, we most hope for, is not coming. We want peace," Twal said after he passed into Bethlehem in a traditional holiday procession from nearby Jerusalem.

Twal and his convoy of dozens of vehicles entered Palestinian-controlled territory through a massive steel gate in Israel's heavily guarded West Bank separation barrier, escorted by Israeli soldiers and police in jeeps.

The barrier and the heavy Israeli security presence served as reminders of the friction and hostilities that have thwarted peace efforts.

"We want freedom of movement, we don't want walls," Twal said after passing through the barrier. "We don't want separation fences. We hope that things will become more normal for us."

Only hours later, an Israeli man was shot and killed in the West Bank in an attack by Palestinian gunmen. Such attacks, once common, have become rare in recent years as the West Bank has regained a semblance of normalcy.

Israeli Radio identified the man as a resident of a nearby settlement, and a little-known Palestinian faction took responsibility in an e-mail sent to journalists.

Violence in Iraq
Some Christians in other far-flung parts of the world also saw gloom edge out the holiday cheer.

On Thursday, explosions killed at least 26 people across Iraq, most of them Shiite pilgrims taking part in a holy mourning ceremony. The blasts raised fears of further sectarian attacks at the approach of Ashoura, when Shiites mark a period of mourning and self-flagellation for the Prophet Muhammad's grandson.

Baghdad's small remaining Christian minority was to celebrate midnight Mass in daylight for security reasons, and churches were under heavy guard. A bombing this week targeting a 1,200-year-old church in Mosul killed two passers-by, underscoring Iraqi Christians' concerns.

Because the Christian and Shiite holidays coincide this year, Christians feel an extra need for caution. At least one Catholic archbishop has discouraged Christmas decorations and public merrymaking out of respect for Shiites. "We used to put the Christmas tree with its bright lights close to the window in the entrance of our home," said Saad Matti, a 51-year-old surgeon and Basra city councilman. "But this year, we put it away from the window as a kind of respect for the feelings of Shiite Muslims in our neighborhood because of Ashoura."

Few were celebrating at a tent camp 220 miles southwest of Islamabad, Pakistan, erected to house Christians left homeless by a rampage of looting and arson by Muslims in August.

The Christians say they have received cell phone text messages warning them to expect a "special Christmas present." They're terrified their tents will be torched or their church services bombed.

"Last year I celebrated Christmas full of joy," said Irfan Masih, cradling his young son among the canvas shelters and open ditches of the camp. But now "the fear that we may again be attacked is in our hearts."

Volcano threat, pope's Mass
Far to the east, in the shadow of the erupting Mayon volcano in the Philippines, thousands of families were spending Christmas Eve in shelters as the volcano belched out 20 gray ash columns Thursday, some of them a mile high.

Government workers and volunteers tried to keep some 47,000 residents evacuated from their homes entertained with games, movies and concerts, a heavy burden during the Christmas season in this majority Roman Catholic country.

Dinner packs of noodles, apples, oranges and corned beef were distributed at the shelters for Christmas Eve dinner. Children in one evacuation center gleefully lined up for ice cream.

In Rome, Pope Benedict XVI was to celebrate Christmas Eve Mass in St. Peter's Basilica two hours earlier than usual — a move aimed at sparing the 82-year-old pontiff from such a late night.

Benedict was to initiate the evening's services at nightfall by lighting a candle in a window after Vatican officials unveil the life-sized Nativity scene in St. Peter's Square.