x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Christmas cheer around the world

As families celebrated Christmas in the UAE, Bethlehem experienced the biggest celebration in a decade but violence in Nigeria and the Philippines marred the holiday.

Santa Claus distributes sweets to children on the occasion of Christmas at Le Meridien hotel in New Delhi yesterday. Christians in India make up just over 2 percent of India's one-billion-strong population.
Santa Claus distributes sweets to children on the occasion of Christmas at Le Meridien hotel in New Delhi yesterday. Christians in India make up just over 2 percent of India's one-billion-strong population.

BETHLEHEM, WEST BANK // A record number of pilgrims from around the world gathered in Bethlehem on Christmas Day in the largest celebration this West Bank town has seen in a decade.

While celebrations in Bethlehem were peaceful, fresh attacks against Christians marred the Christmas festival yesterday as church leaders condemned religious persecution and called for peace and reconciliation.

At least 32 people have been killed in multiple Christmas Eve blasts in central Nigeria, a region violently divided between Christians and Muslims.

"We lost 32 and 74 were injured," the Plateau state police commissioner, Abdulrahman Akano, said of the explosions in the city of Jos, which has been hit by repeated sectarian violence that authorities say has been stoked by politics.

He said there were a total of seven explosions with homemade devices in two separate areas. It appeared dynamite was used, he said.

"This is the very first time explosives of this magnitude are involved," said Akano.

The violence came as a self-proclaimed jihadist said in an audiotaped threat that countries celebrating Christmas would be targeted for attacks, the Site monitoring group said on Friday.

"Your [Christmas] fireworks will act as an alarm for the time of our devices to blow up - devices that we, not Santa Claus, are going to offer to you as gifts, to turn your night into day and your blood into rivers," said a translation provided by Site.

The recording, directed to "the unbeliever and Christian countries celebrating Christmas", bore the voice of a member of the Shumukh al Islam forum, said the US-based monitor.

A bomb in a church during Christmas mass in the southern Philippines wounded 11 people, including the priest, even as Christian leaders highlighted the plight of believers facing the threat of attacks around the world.

Military officials would not immediately name any suspects in the blast on Jolo island, but the island is a known bastion of the Abu Sayyaf, a group linked to al Qa'eda network.

"The explosion occurred about 7.15 in the morning while the mass was going on," military spokesman Lt Randolph Cabangbang said.

"There is a possibility that this could be the handiwork of the Abu Sayyaf because they have been perpetrating similar attacks against the Catholic church," he added.

The latest incidents came as pilgrims were assembling around the Church of the Nativity, built on the site where tradition holds Jesus Christ was born, for prayers yesterday. The Israeli military put the number of pilgrims this year at more than 100,000, compared to about 50,000 last year.

In his midnight mass at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, Latin Patriarch Fuad Twal, the Middle East's senior Catholic bishop, offered a message of solidarity to Iraqi Christians.

"We recall the tragedy that struck the Christian community in Iraq. Such fanatic actions are universally condemned by Christians and Muslims," he said.

Iraqi Christians have been the target of repeated bloody attacks, including a raid on a Baghdad church that killed 44 worshippers and two priests on October 31.

The patriarch's audience in Bethlehem included the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, his prime minister Salam Fayyad and diplomats from several European countries.

In Iraq itself, despite al Qa'eda threats, about 40 worshippers gathered to mark Christmas Eve at the Saint Joseph church in central Baghdad, less than two months after a massacre at another church in the city.

"Do not fear: that is the message today," Father Saad Sirop Hanna, the head priest at the Chaldean Catholic church, told his congregation.

In Rome, Pope Benedict XVI prayed for God to punish the world's "oppressors" and bring about "true brotherhood" between peoples in his traditional Christmas message in Saint Peter's basilica.

This year the Pope was kept further away from the congregation at the mass during his procession to the altar and more security guards were drafted in.

At the Christmas Eve mass last year, a mentally unstable Swiss-Italian woman dragged him to the ground.

In Britain, the leader of the world's Anglicans urged people to remember those across the globe who face persecution because of their Christian faith, in his Christmas Day sermon, extracts of which were released yesterday.

"We may feel powerless to help; yet we should also know that people in such circumstances are strengthened simply by knowing they have not been forgotten," said the archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.

The sense of Christmas cheer was being sorely tested in parts of Europe where freezing temperatures have caused transport chaos, with thousands of travellers forced to spend the night in trains or barracks, on ferries or in airports as the snow piled up.

But in Cuba, Cardinal Jaime Ortega celebrated a Christmas Eve mass in the country's main prison in Havana. Around 20 prisoners attended the service on Friday, a church spokesman said.


With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse