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Pilgrims Celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem Against Backdrop of Violence

It was "important to be here, to react and send a message of peace for Christmas," said Italian nun Sister Donatella as she walked among a procession of drummers and bagpipe players.


Pilgrims celebrated Christmas in the town where tradition says Jesus was born Thursday but festivities were subdued against a backdrop of violence in the Holy Land and a growing jihadist threat across the Middle East.

The news was not all grim as a lucky Christmas lottery ticket in Spain scored big for a Senegalese migrant, while music fans welcomed the announcement that The Beatles' music would finally be available for streaming in time for the holiday. In Bethlehem, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in the Holy Land arrived ahead of the traditional midnight mass at the Church of the Nativity, built at the site where Christians believe Jesus was born.

Travelling from nearby Jerusalem, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal, a Jordanian, would have had to pass the Israeli separation wall, part of which divides the two cities, with Bethlehem located in the occupied West Bank.

A wave of violence has led to a sharp decline in the number of pilgrims visiting Bethlehem and the rest of the Holy Land this year, and only a sparse crowd was on hand to welcome Twal's procession.

Violent protests and a wave of Palestinian knife, gun and car-ramming attacks targeting Israelis since October have killed 129 on the Palestinian side, 19 Israelis, an American and an Eritrean.

Many of the Palestinians killed have been attackers while others have been shot dead by Israeli security forces during clashes.

Three Palestinians were shot dead on Thursday in the West Bank while carrying out stabbing or car-ramming attacks, according to Israeli authorities.

And a Palestinian was killed during clashes with Israeli forces at a refugee camp in the West Bank, health officials said.

Still, pilgrims who were at Manger Square in the heart of Bethlehem were proud to have made the trip.

It was "important to be here, to react and send a message of peace for Christmas," said Italian nun Sister Donatella as she walked among a procession of drummers and bagpipe players. Linaras Oceani, a Christian Indonesian taking selfies, said she was not deterred by travel warnings from authorities in her country.

"God is with me, so all will be well," said the young woman, wearing sunglasses and a fur coat. She called herself "privileged, because not everyone has the opportunity to come here."

- Mass dedicated to victims -

The mass in Bethlehem this year will be dedicated to victims of violence and their families while celebrations should be "moderate" due to violence in the Palestinian territories, Israel and worldwide, Twal has said.

He has also called for parishes to switch off Christmas tree lights for five minutes in solidarity with victims of violence and "terrorism." In his Christmas message earlier this month, he said "a deadly ideology based on religious fanaticism and obstinacy is spreading terror and barbarism amidst innocent people."

The midnight mass is expected to be attended by religious leaders and dignitaries including Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.

At the Vatican, Pope Francis will celebrate mass at St. Peter's Basilica.

"Christmas is approaching: there will be lights, parties, Christmas trees and nativity scenes ... it's all a charade. The world continues to go to war. The world has not chosen a peaceful path," Francis said in a recent sermon. His concerns were playing out in countries including Iraq, Libya and Syria, where Christians have been threatened by the advance of Islamic State group jihadists.

In Somalia, the government has banned celebrations of Christmas and New Year in the Muslim majority country, saying the festivities might attract Islamist attacks.

In the troubled southern Philippines, seven Christian farmers were killed on Thursday as Muslim guerrillas launched a series of attacks, the military said.

The US and British embassies in China also issued an unusual warning about possible threats against "Westerners" in a popular Beijing neighbourhood ahead of the Christmas holiday. And security was due to be stepped up at churches in France for mass, following last month's Paris attacks that left 130 people dead.

But there was good news as well -- at least for music fans and one lucky lottery player.

The Beatles, the top-selling band in musical history yet a persistent holdout on new technology, announced they would end a boycott of streaming in time for Christmas. The Fab Four's full catalogue will be available on all major services including leader Spotify.

Meanwhile, an unemployed Senegalese man who was rescued by the Spanish coastguard after making a risky journey from Morocco eight years ago on a packed wooden boat won 400,000 euros ($437,000) in Spain's annual Christmas lottery.