At start of Advent, fragment of Jesus' manger returned to Palestine
The tiny wooden relic was sent to Rome 1,400 years ago
A tiny wooden relic that some Christians believe to be part of Jesus’ manger has arrived in its permanent home in the biblical city of Bethlehem 1,400 years after it was sent to Rome as a gift to the pope.
Cheerful crowds greeted the ornately encased relic with much fanfare before it entered the Franciscan Church of St Catherine next to the Church of the Nativity, the West Bank holy site where tradition says Jesus was born.
The return of the relic by the Vatican was a spirit-lifting moment for the Palestinians and its small minority of Christians. It coincides with Advent, a four-week period leading up to Christmas. Troubled Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank is preparing for the occasion, where pilgrims from around the world flock to the city.
Young Palestinian scouts played the bagpipes and the crowd snapped pictures as a clergyman held the silver reliquary and marched toward the church.
The wood piece, just a few centimetres long was once kept in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. It was handed over earlier this week to the custodian of the Bethlehem church, who said it brought "great honour to believers and pilgrims in the area".
Brother Francesco Patton, the custodian of the Franciscan order in the Holy Land, said Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had asked Pope Francis to borrow the entire manger, but the pope decided to send a tiny portion of it to stay permanently in Bethlehem.
"We are excited and thank the pope, the holy father, Francis, for the gift and the right to safeguard the holy relic," Francesco Patton, Custos of the Holy Land for the Catholic church, said.
“It’s a great joy” that the piece returns to its original place, Brother Patton said, according to Palestinian news agency Wafa.
Amira Hanania, a member of Mr Abbas's Higher Committee of Churches Affairs, said "to celebrate Christmas with the presence of part of the manger in which Jesus Christ was born will be a magnificent and huge event."
St Sophronius, the patriarch of Jerusalem, sent the wooden structure believed to be part of the manger to Pope Theodore I in the 640s, around the time of the Muslim conquest of the Holy Land.
On Friday, the thumb-sized wooden piece was unveiled to worshippers at the Notre Dame church in Jerusalem for a day of celebrations and prayer.
On Saturday evening, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh and other officials attended a Christmas tree lighting in Manger Square outside the Church of the Nativity.
Hundreds of faithful and residents also gathered for the festive annual event, which included fireworks and songs. Crowds cheered as the giant tree was illuminated.
Revellers and worshippers alike will pack the same square for Christmas Eve festivities later in December.
While the security situation has eased around the town in recent years, Israeli checkpoints guard the entrances to Bethlehem, which lies just south of Jerusalem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Updated: December 1, 2019 03:25 PM