BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) — The top Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land celebrated the United Nations' recent recognition of a Palestinian state in his annual pre-Christmas homily on Monday, saying that while the road to actual freedom from Israeli occupation remains long, the Palestinian homeland has been born.
Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal told followers at the patriarchate's headquarters in Jerusalem's Old City that this year's festivities were doubly joyful, celebrating "the birth of Christ our Lord and the birth of the state of Palestine."
"The path (to statehood) remains long, and will require a united effort," added Twal, a Palestinian citizen of Jordan.
From Jerusalem, he set off in a procession for the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Jesus' traditional birthplace. There, he was reminded that life on the ground for Palestinians has not really changed since the U.N. recognized their state last month in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
Twal had to enter the biblical city through a massive metal gate in the barrier of towering concrete slabs Israel built between Jerusalem and Bethlehem during a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings in the last decade.
Israel, backed by the United States, opposed the statehood bid, saying it was a Palestinian ploy to bypass negotiations. Talks stalled four years ago, primarily over Israel's construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, territories Israel occupied in the 1967 Mideast war.
Israel has rejected the Palestinians' demand that it freeze all construction before they will renew talks, and launched a major settlement building push in retaliation for the successful statehood bid.
Hundreds of people were on hand to greet Twal in Manger Square, outside the Church of Nativity. The mood was festive under sunny skies, with children dressed in holiday finery or in Santa costumes, and marching bands playing in the streets.
A lavishly decorated 55-foot (25-meter) fir tree with a nativity scene at its foot dominated the plaza. Festivities were to culminate with Midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity, built over the grotto where tradition says Jesus was born.
Devout Christians said it was a moving experience to be so close to the origins of their faith.
"It's a special feeling to be here, it's an encounter with my soul and God," said Joanne Kurczewska, a professor at Warsaw University in Poland, who was visiting Bethlehem for a second time at Christmas.
Christmas is the high point of the year in Bethlehem, which, like the rest of the West Bank, is struggling to recover from the economic hard times that followed the violent Palestinian uprising against Israel that broke out in late 2000.
Tourists and pilgrims who had been scared away by the fighting have been returning in larger numbers. Last year's Christmas Eve celebration produced the highest turnout in more than a decade, with some 100,000 visitors, including foreign workers and Arab Christians from Israel.
The Israeli Tourism Ministry predicts a 25 percent drop from that level this year, following last month's clash between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza, which put a chill on tourist arrivals. Foreign tourists heading to Bethlehem must pass through Israel or the Israel-controlled border crossing into the West Bank from Jordan.