25 Dec : Pope Benedict XVI ushered in Christmas at the Vatican as he led the celebration of Midnight Mass in the splendor of St Peter’s Basilica early on Thursday.
Dressed in white and gold-colored vestments, the 81-year-old Benedict walked in a procession up the main aisle, smiling and stopping several times to shake outstretched hands and bless children.
As a choir intoned a Psalm, the pope sprinkled incense on the central altar under Bernini’s towering bronze baldachin before opening the service with the traditional wish for peace in Latin: "Pax vobis" ("Peace be with you"). The faithful responded: "Et cum spiritu tuo." ("And also with you.")Thousands of pilgrims, Romans and tourists packed the basilica for the midnight service. For those unable to enter there were giant screens set up in St Peter’s Square.Earlier on Wednesday, Benedict appeared briefly at his studio window to bless the crowd in the chilly square and light a single candle in a sign of peace.Before the pope appeared in his darkened studio to light the flame, the Vatican’s No 2 official, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, said the gesture was an invitation to all to pray for peace and think of those who are less fortunate.
"I say to all those who are listening, light the candle of peace inside yourself, light the candle of welcoming and understanding that will help you listen and share the cry of the poor and of those who suffer," Bertone said.
The Vatican’s Christmas festivities began with the unveiling of the larger-than-life Nativity scene next to the Vatican’s largest-ever Christmas tree in St Peter’s Square. Children in red-and-white Santa hats sang Italian holiday hymns as the Vatican’s Gendarmeria band played alongside.
Thousands of tourists throng Bethlehem for Christmas
Thousands of tourists from around the world thronged the West Bank town of Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus Christs, amidst firing of rockets and mortar shells by the Palestinian militants in the Gaza strip.
Fireworks ignited the sky as tourists and locals jostled for space at the Manger square, the centre of activities, where vendors tried to sell peanuts, inflatable Santas, toys, strong Arabic coffee.
The economic crisis seems to have little impact on the pilgrims who came from all parts of the world."I was a little worried about the crisis but as tourists started to trickle in last week we have been filled with hope. The hotels have full occupancy and we, for a change, do not have time to breathe. Ithas brought back the good old memories of cheerful celebrations here," a taxi driver Bassam Avdu said.
On Wednesday evening, choirs from Russia, Italy, Spain and Palestine performed for pilgrims lining up to kiss the star on the floor of the grotto marking Jesus’ birthplace at midnight.
Minutes before the Midnight Mass, number of international rock groups and trance DJs as thousands offaithfuls cheered the performers."It is like dream come true for me. I had applied for a permit some six months ago, and when I was informed about the approval, my joy had no limits," an Indian tourists from Gujarat, Kadchha Jakhara Haja said.
During the day, local Palestinian boys and girls scouts played bagpipes throughout Bethlehem, and carols could be heard around every corner as they marched toward Manger Square, where they were welcomed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Abbas-led Palestinian Authority (PA) had made unprecedented security arrangements in the city with Israel cooperating in the smooth movement of pilgrims, entering from Jerusalem.
An Israeli military officer responsible for coordination in Bethlehem, Eyad Sirhan, said: "He can talk to his Palestinian counterpart any time, 24-hours a day, about everything from police patrols to garbage collection.
"Every detail of the holiday preparations was meticulously discussed by both sides," he said.Bethlehem residents, however, complained that the city’s economy, which primarily survives on tourism, has been crippled due to some strong and harsh measures by Israel.
"It is just two-day affair to evade international criticism. Just look at the wall the Israelis have built. Our movement had been confined and tourists normally hesitate to come here due to the checkpoint and the wall," a Bethlehem resident, Rajah Zachariah, complained.
Israel says that the wall was meant to prevent suicide attacks in its territory which had become a recurring feature during the peak of a Palestinian intifada that started in October 2000.
Most of the people however seem to have forgotten their miseries amid huge inflow of tourists with a local city hall official estimating more than 70,000 visitors during the week.
Meanwhile, some 45 miles away from cheerful celebrations, Palestinian militants in the Gaza strip fired about 80 rockets and mortar shells on Israel’s southern communities where people scrambled for ‘miklat’ (shelter houses).
Israel’s Home Front has been on a state of high alert ever since a six-month truce between Gaza militants and Jerusalem ended last week leading to an upsurge in violence, dimming hopes of its renewal.
Israel Air Force attacked a rocket launching pad in Gaza in which one militant was killed and two others injured.Leaders of Islamist faction, Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, have gone underground fearing assassination attempts by Israeli army.