Page last updated at 15:16 GMT, Friday, 25 December 2009

Worshippers gather to celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem

Latin Patriarch Foud Twal holds a statue of baby Jesus
Latin Patriarch Foud Twal called for peace during the celebrations

Thousands of Christian worshippers have celebrated Christmas Day in Bethlehem - believed to be the traditional birthplace of Jesus Christ.

Palestinians and pilgrims from around the world came together in the town to celebrate the event.

Hundreds attended morning mass at St Catherine's Church, in the Church of Nativity complex on Manger Square.

About 15,000 tourists are expected to stay in the town during the holiday period.

Rock music was played while traditional carol singers mingled with worshippers in the town.

Other celebrations took place at locations including at Saint George Orthodox Church in the West Bank village of Burqin near Jenin.

'Family gathering'

Some 300 Christians over the age of 35 from the Gaza Strip were given permission by the Israeli military to travel to Bethlehem and stay for 24 hours to celebrate Christmas.

About 80 people were also reported to have stayed and attended services at Gaza City's Roman Catholic Church.

Visitor Jonathan Croy from Alabama in the US said the feeling in Bethlehem was one of a "giant family gathering", the Associated Press (AP) news agency reported.

A young boy lights a candle at St George Orthodox Church
Children dressed up to take part in the celebrations

"It's interesting being here and seeing the dichotomy of religions, all nationalities and religions mixing together," he said.

The Vatican's envoy to the Holy Land, papal nuncio Antonio Franco told AP he was "hopeful" that peace was possible.

Earlier, during midnight Mass, Latin Patriarch Foud Twal, the most senior Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land, delivered his Christmas message to thousands of pilgrims in Bethlehem.

"The wish that we most want, we most hope for, is not coming - we want peace," he said after arriving in Bethlehem after the traditional holiday procession from nearby Jerusalem.

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