Pilgrims crowd Bethlehem on warm Christmas eve

Fri Dec 25, 2009 12:08pm EST
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By Erika Solomon

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (Reuters) - Thousands of pilgrims and dignitaries crowded into Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity for a Christmas Mass, where Latin Patriarch Fuad al-Tuwal urged visitors to return home bearing a message of peace for the Holy Land.

Entertaining crowds outside, bagpipers played carols and whirling dervishes danced, unfurling giant white skirts embroidered with the word peace in various languages.

Some 15,000 visitors packed into the stone flagged square opposite the small Door of Humility where pilgrims stoop to enter the multi-denominational church, built above the spot where Christians believe Jesus was born.

While much of North America and Europe were gripped in winter's icy embrace, visitors to Bethlehem were buying chilled fruit juice in Manger Square and stripping off sweaters in the mild weather.

"It's about 20 degrees (68 Fahrenheit) and it's a little hard to get that Christmas feeling I'm used to having," said Phillip Well, 22, from Germany.

Some tourists were bemused by the scene.

"I'm not used to seeing marching bands and scout troops do the Christmas festivities, but it's entertaining," said 40-year-old Vijey Raghavan, of San Francisco, California.

Inside the church at midnight mass, monks kept the celebrations traditional with Christmas hymns and al-Tuwal delivered a special Christmas message in six different languages, including Arabic.   Continued...

<p>Clergymen attend Christmas mass at the Church of the Nativity, the site revered as the birthplace of Jesus, in the West Bank town of Bethlehem December 25, 2009. REUTERS/Ammar Awad</p>