I would like to wish all my Christian readers and friends a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. May 2013 be a year of peace, happiness and prosperity for all of us.
Manger Square in Bethlehem was packed last night with celebrants, worshippers and merry-makers in honour of the festival.
Thousands of Christians from across the world packed Manger Square in Bethlehem on Monday to celebrate the birth of Jesus in the ancient Judean town where it is believed he was born.
The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal, led the Christmas Eve mass at Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, thought by millions of Christians to be located at the exact spot of Jesus’ birth.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad were among those at the mass.
The Palestinian Tourism Ministry said tourism numbers had increased 20 percent in the last year, with 15,000 foreign pilgrims expected in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve and 10,000 on Christmas Day.
On Monday, the mood in Bethlehem was joyous under sunny skies, with children dressed in holiday finery or in Santa costumes, and marching bands playing in the streets.
After nightfall, a packed Manger Square, resplendent with strings of lights, decorations and a 17-meter (55-foot) Christmas tree, took on a festival atmosphere, as pilgrims mixed with locals.
A choral group from the Baptist Church in Jerusalem performed carols on one side of the square, handing out sheets of lyrics and encouraging others to sing along with songs such as “We Wish You A Merry Christmas.”
Vendors sold balloons, cotton candy and corn on the cob, bands played Christmas songs and tourists packed cafés that are quiet most of the rest of the year.
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 Joanna Kurczewska, a professor at Warsaw University in Poland, who was on her second visit to Bethlehem.
Pastor Al Mucciarone, 61, from Short Hills, New Jersey, agreed.
“We come here to celebrate Jesus. This is a very important town. Great things come from small events. The son of God was born in this small village. We hope all will follow Jesus,” he said.
Audra Kasparian, 45, from Salt Lake City, Utah, called her visit to Bethlehem “a life event to cherish forever. It is one of those events that is great to be a part of.”
Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu also greeted Israel’s Christian community and tourists with Christmas wishes:
Unlike other countries in the Middle East, where Christian communities are shrinking and many of them are in danger, in Israel there is a strong and growing Christian community that participates fully in the life of the country, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said in a taped Christmas greeting on Monday.
“Israel is proud of its record of religious tolerance and pluralism, and Israel will continue to protect freedom of religion for all,” Netanyahu said. “And we will continue to safeguard places of Christian worship throughout our country.”
In an apparent reference to a spate of vandalism against Christian sites over the last year, Netanyahu – who has come out forcefully against such actions – said: “We will not tolerate any acts of violence or discrimination against any place of worship. This is not our way, and this is something we cannot accept.”
The prime minister invited the world’s Christians to “recall the places where Judaism and Christianity emerged, and then come see our ancient land with your own eyes. Visit Nazareth and Bethlehem, wade into the Jordan River, stand on the shores of the Sea of Galilee [Lake Kinneret] and next year come visit our eternal capital of Jerusalem.”
Sadly all is not well with Christian minorities in other countries across the Middle East:
Netanyahu’s comments about endangered Christian communities in the Middle East follows by a day a report by the British think tank Civitas which concluded that “Christianity is in serious danger of being wiped out in its biblical heartlands because of Islamic oppression.”
According to the report by Civitas, which the BBC characterized as right-leaning, “Western politicians and media largely ignore the widespread persecution of Christians in the Middle East and the wider world because they are afraid they will be accused of racism.”
According to the report, “between a half and two-thirds of Christians in the Middle East have left or been killed over the past century.”
The pace, the report asserts, “is now intensifying with the rise of militant Islam in countries such as Egypt, Iraq and now, with the civil war, Syria.”
Let us be thankful that in Israel, the birthplace of both Judaism and Christianity, the Christian population is the only place where their numbers are growing.
Here is the video of Netanyahu’s Christmas 2012 greetings:
Happy Christmas to all those celebrating!