Tens of thousands of Christians peacefully celebrated Christmas in Bethlehem on Sunday, while hundreds of Christian pilgrims from India marched through the town to promote world peace.
"The scenes from various parts of the Middle East during the last few months have been very worrisome, so we decided to gather in this Holy city to pray to God to bring peace in the region on Christmas," Father Sleeba Katpumangappu told onlookers on Saturday night.
Some Christian leaders have grown anxious over the state of the religion in Bethlehem amidst threats from religious extremists and the spread of Jewish settlements that threatens to cut off many pilgrims from Jesus’ birthplace.
Father Ibrahim Shomali, priest of Bethlehem’s Beit Jala parish recognizes the Jewish settlements between Jerusalem and Bethlehem as a potentially unassailable obstacle.
“This really is the big problem for Palestinians in Bethlehem: what will happen when they close us off completely?” Shomali told Sydney Morning Herald.
The priest added that not even Jesus would be able to get into Bethlehem if he tried to enter today.
“If Jesus were to come this year, Bethlehem would be closed,” Shomali said. “He would either have to be born at a checkpoint or at the separation wall. Mary and Joseph would have needed Israeli permission - or to have been tourists.”
It was a rainy Christmas for those celebrating in Bethlehem, but Christians from around the world report the unique experience of celebrating the birth of Christ in His birthplace was exhilarating.
“Lots of pilgrims from around the world are coming to be here on Christmas," Don Moore, a California Christian who spent the holiday in Bethlehem, told The Associated Press. "We wanted to be part of the action. This is the place, this is where it all started. It doesn't get any more special than that.”
Muslim leaders in the area hope to work with Israeli officials to keep the peace and hash out a better system for Christians.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told Christian leaders last weekend that he is confident peace can be attained in time.
"I hope they [Israel] will come back to their senses and understand that we are seekers of peace, not seekers of war or terrorism," Abbas, a Muslim, said at the meeting. "The mosque, church and synagogue stand side by side in this Holy Land."
Christmas celebrations have been growing in popularity and size in Israel despite protests from religious groups and government officials who cite tenets in Judaism and Islam that prohibit the acknowledgment and celebration of Christ’s birth.
A burgeoning Christian community comprised mostly of Filipino laborers and African pilgrims is celebrating the holiday in public spaces and neighborhoods of Tel Aviv, Nazareth and Jerusalem.
Christmas trees and festive songs abounded from bus stations, storefronts and otherwise inconspicuous churches in the days leading up to Christmas.