BETHLEHEM: Tens of thousands of Christians flocked to Bethlehem to celebrate Christmas as the pope at the Vatican called for peace, humility and reconciliation.
As the faithful crowded the ancient town where the Bible says Jesus was born, Pope Benedict XVI on Christmas Eve urged believers to look beyond the "glitter" of the Christian holiday.
"Today Christmas has become a commercial celebration, whose bright lights hide the mystery of God’s humility, which in turn calls us to humility and simplicity," the pope told thousands at mass in Saint Peter’s basilica.
"Let us ask the Lord to help us see through the superficial glitter of this season, and to discover behind it the child in the stable in Bethlehem, so as to find true joy and true light," the 84-year-old pontiff said.
He also issued a scathing rebuke to "oppressors" and warmongers around the world.
"In this time of ours, in this world of ours, cause the oppressors’ rods, the cloaks rolled in blood and the footgear of battle to be burned, so that your peace may triumph in this world of ours," he said.
Peace was also a central theme in Patriarch of Jerusalem Fuad Twal’s Christmas homily delivered in Bethlehem, where hotels and guesthouses were packed to capacity with pilgrims.
"We ask for peace, stability and security for the entire Middle East," said Twal, the most senior Roman Catholic in the Middle East.
In a midnight mass, he urged "the return of calm and reconciliation in Syria, in Egypt, in Iraq and in North Africa".
In popular uprisings in Tunis and Egypt which ended decades of secular dictatorships this year, Islamist parties have since taken centre stage.
The UN Security Council says Syria has killed more than 5,000 of its people in a clampdown on protesters in recent months, and Thursday attacks in Iraq killed 60 people, heightening sectarian tensions less than a week after US troops withdrew.
"O Child of Bethlehem, in this New Year, we place in your hands this troubled Middle East and, above all, our youth full of legitimate aspirations, who are frustrated by the economic and political situation, and in search of a better future," Twal said.
He welcomed Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas to the mass, and congratulating him "in his unfaltering efforts to achieve a just peace in the Middle East, a main thrust of which is the creation of a Palestinian State."
As day broke over Bethlehem, a few miles south of Jerusalem, residents welcomed thousands of pilgrims who came to see where the Bible says Jesus was born to a couple from Nazareth.
Palestinian officials expected more than 50,000 visitors from around the world.
"Hotels are full. We have no rooms left even though the number of hotel rooms has multiplied in the last three years," Palestinian tourism minister Khulud Daibes told AFP.
Christmas Eve celebrations are mainly in and around Manger Square, the central plaza next to the Church of the Nativity.
The church is built over the site where Christians believe Mary gave birth to Jesus in a stable and laid him in an animal’s feeding trough, or manger.
Boy scouts with drums and bagpipes marched through the town for the annual Christmas parade ahead of concerts and other entertainment on what is the year’s biggest tourist attraction in the Palestinian territories, where Christmas is a national holiday.
A huge Christmas tree covered in lights and decorations dominated the square, which filled up with excited visitors, some wearing red Santa hats and others in the somber garb of various monastic orders.
Tourists snapped pictures of the giant tree and of a local dressed up as Father Christmas, as a group of foreign activists in Santa hats, each wearing a letter on their clothes, lined up to spell the words: Free Palestine.
There were also Muslims among the crowds. Many veiled women brought their children to join the celebrations of the birth of Jesus, or Isa in Arabic, whom they revere as a prophet.
"I’m here today to see the celebrations like every year. We come as Christians and Muslims to see them," said Shireen Knaan. "There is no difference between Christians and Muslims as it is the Prophet Isa’s birthday."
The Israeli army eased security measures to facilitate the arrival in Bethlehem of Palestinian and Arab-Israeli Christians.
The town is cut off from neighboring Israel by part of the separation barrier that snakes along, and often inside, the line dividing Israel from the West Bank.
Roman Catholics, Protestants and some Eastern Orthodox celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25, but other Orthodox and oriental churches do not do so until January.
In London, anti-capitalist protesters camped outside St Paul’s Cathedral celebrated Christmas with the church, putting aside old squabbles.
In the spirit of Christmas goodwill, clergy sang for the 200-odd protesters camped on the church’s doorstep since October, and invited them to attend midnight mass.