x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Merriest Christmas in Bethlehem in years: soldiers

While the largest number of pilgrims in a decade gathered in Bethlehem to celebrate Christmas violence in Nigeria and the Philippines marred Christmas Day festivities.

The largest number of pilgrims in a decade has gathered in Bethlehem to celebrate Christmas, with tens of thousands flocking to the Church of the Nativity for prayers this morning, while violence in Nigeria and the Philippines marred Christmas Day festivities.

Israeli military officials, who coordinate movement in and out of the West Bank, said more than 100,000 pilgrims have come to the town since Christmas Eve, compared to about 50,000 last year.

They said this was the merriest Christmas in Bethlehem in years and the highest number of visitors for the holiday in a decade. They officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to talk to the media.

In contrast, Christians were marking a sombre Christmas in Baghdad in the face of repeated violence by militants intent on driving their beleaguered community from Iraq. Archbishop Matti Shaba Matouka said he hoped Iraqi Christians would not flee the country.

Hundreds gathered at a Baghdad church where Muslim extremists in October took more than 120 people hostage in a standoff that ended with 68 dead. Church walls were pockmarked with bullet holes, plastic sheeting covered gaps where glass windows used to be and small pieces of dried flesh and blood remain stuck to the ceiling.

After the siege, about 1,000 Christian families fled to the relative safety of northern Iraq, according to UN estimates.

"No matter how hard the storms blows, love will save us," Matouka told the gathered faithful.

Christmas was marred by violence in the Philippines. A bomb exploded during Christmas Day Mass at a police chapel in the volatile southern Philippines, wounding a priest and five churchgoers.

The improvised explosive was hidden in the ceiling of the chapel, which is located inside a police camp in Jolo town on Jolo Island, a stronghold of al-Qaida-linked militants.

In Nigeria, at least 11 people have been killed in multiple Christmas Eve blasts in the country's central region that was violently divided between Christians and Muslims.

Gregory Yenlong, the Plateau State information commissioner said he counted 11 dead bodies at two sites rocked by bombs in the city of Jos. Mr Yenlong said nobody has claimed responsibility for the attacks in the city, which has long been plagued with religious violence.

In Rome, Pope Benedict XVI ushered in Christmas Eve with an evening Mass on Friday amid heightened security concerns following the package bombings at two Rome embassies and Christmas Eve security breaches at the Vatican the past two years.

Benedict processed down the central aisle of St. Peter's Basilica at the start and end of the Mass without incident, stopping several times to kiss babies, bodyguards on either side of him.

During the same service in 2008 and 2009, a mentally disturbed woman lunged at the pope as he walked down the aisle - and last year she managed to pull him to the ground.

In Bethlehem, pilgrims and tourists posed for pictures and enjoyed the morning sunshine today while others thronged the Church of the Nativity for mass. Worshippers also packed the Roman Catholic church built next to the grotto where the traditional site of Jesus' birth is enshrined.

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Still waiting for festive cheer at Christ's birthplace

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