JERUSALEM, DEC. 24, 2002 (ZENIT.org).- The Israeli army pulled back from Manger Square and other central parts of Bethlehem to allow for Christmas celebrations in the town of Jesus’ birth.
With the curfew lifted, Christians piled into the streets to greet the Latin-rite patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah, who came in procession from Jerusalem.
In the side streets the religious leader received a long applause from the people, particularly the Muslims.
The streets and houses were generally bare of any Christmas decorations. Tourists were rare, and many shops remained closed.
Mounted Israeli police escorted the entourage from Jerusalem until it reached Palestinian territory at the Tantur checkpoint. On entering Bethlehem, the procession was escorted by Palestinian police.
The mayor of Bethlehem, Hanna Nasser, relayed a welcome to Patriarch Sabbah from Yasser Arafat, who was again banned by the Israelis from attending Christmas Mass in the town.
In the square next to the Basilica of the Nativity, a line of seminarians, Franciscan friars and religious waited in the rain for the solemn procession into the church.
Nearby, Palestinian activists protested against the Israeli military occupation.
Israeli authorities announced that Arab Christians of Israel and residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip who hold special passes would be able to go to Bethlehem to join in Midnight Mass and the Christmas Day celebrations.
Patriarch Sabbah was scheduled to celebrate Midnight Mass at St. Catherine’s Church, next to the Franciscan convent.
Israeli troops began their most recent raid in this town on Nov. 22, after a suicide bomber from Bethlehem blew himself up on a Jerusalem bus, killing 11 Israelis.