Jerusalem : Tens of thousands of native Christians, pilgrims and tourists celebrated Christmas in the Holy Land Tuesday, in what locals said was the most relaxed holiday season in years.
In Bethlehem, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Michel Sabah called for reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians, urging them to share the land they live in rather than fight over it.
“God brought us here over the ages, Jews and Muslim, so that we will be two people, Israelis and Palestinians.
“Realizing this call and accepting it means to accept the will of God and become as a result capable of making peace,” the highest representative of the Roman Catholic Church said in his Midnight Mass sermon in the birthplace of Christ.
Sabah opened his sermon by addressing Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who attended the mass at St Catherine Church along with Acting Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and other dignitaries.
“We pray for your sake in this holy night so that you will be able to carry out your difficult mission to enforce security, unite the people and make peace,” he said.
An estimated 20,000 tourists attended celebrations in Bethlehem, which residents said were the most festive in seven years since Israeli-Palestinian violence flared up in late 2000 amid a deadlock in the peace process.
Performers from across the world sang Christmas carols, rock and pop on a large stage on Bethlehem’s central Manger square, opposite the Church of the Nativity believed by Christians to mark the location where Jesus was born.
Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert agreed last month to revive peace negotiations, sparking a boost in tourism and cautious optimism among locals.
Israel’s tourism ministry estimated the total number of Christian pilgrims and tourists visiting the region at 60,000, some 50 percent more than last year.
The tourists in Jerusalem and Bethlehem joined some 152,000 Christians living in Israel, who make up some 2.1 percent of the population.