Peaceful Christmas in Bethlehem

A Roman Catholic priest on Saturday led one of the first cheerful Christmas Day celebrations in Bethlehem in years, after fighting, military curfews and a general glum had kept most visitors away since the late 1990s.

Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah (search), the senior Roman Catholic official in the Holy Land, celebrated Mass with a small crowd of worshippers bundled against a morning chill inside the stone walls of St. Catherine's Church.

He also led a small procession to the front of the church overlooking Manger Square and the nearby Church of the Nativity (search), believed to be built over the grotto where Jesus was born.

Outside the church, a handful of Asian tourists milled around in the rain, watching as residents cleaned up the stone-paved area that had been packed with revelers for the popular midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.

The emerging thaw in Israeli-Palestinian relations — prompted by the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat (search) on Nov. 11 — drew around 5,000 thousand pilgrims to the traditional birthplace of Jesus this Christmas Eve, Israeli officials said.

It was a welcome change after four years of thin crowds for Bethlehem's Christmas celebrations. Although crowds were far smaller than during the town's heyday in the mid-1990s, they were also bigger than in recent years.

St. Catherine's Church was so crowded for midnight Mass that some worshippers were forced to sit on the floor, and crowds overflowed into the square. With interim Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas looking on from the front row, Sabbah called on Israelis and Palestinians to put the violence of the past behind them.

The crowds and celebratory atmosphere was a welcome contrast to recent years. During the fighting, Bethlehem has been ringed by Israeli checkpoints and a massive separation barrier has been erected.

However, on Christmas Eve, Israeli troops allowed pilgrims, including Palestinians from throughout the West Bank, to pass easily through the roadblocks and handed out candy at checkpoints.