Pilgrims in Bethlehem, fears in Europe on Christmas Eve

AFP , Saturday 24 Dec 2016

Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa (C), apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, takes part in the Christmas Eve celebrations on December 24, 2016 outside the Church of the Nativity, revered as the site of Jesus Christ's birth, in the biblical West Bank town of Bethlehem (Photo: AFP)

Pilgrims gathered in Bethlehem on Saturday for Christmas Eve as Europeans worked up some holiday spirit despite tight security in the shadow of the Berlin market attack.

Dozens of Palestinians and tourists flocked to Bethlehem's Manger Square near the Church of the Nativity, where celebrations will culminate with a midnight mass at the site where Christians believe Jesus was born.

Some snapped selfies near the square's giant Christmas tree and watched the annual Scouts parade in the city, a short drive from Jerusalem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

"This is Christ's land, the land of peace," said Ramzi Abu Khalil, who was wearing a red Santa hat.

"We take pride in him. All Christians should come today to Bethlehem. This is a holy day for us and a day of pilgrimage."

Violence put a damper on celebrations in Bethlehem last year, as a wave of knife, gun and car-ramming attacks by Palestinians targeted Israelis and reduced sharply the number of Christmas visitors.

The unrest has subsided in recent months and, with major Bethlehem hotels booked up, many in the city were optimistic this year's holiday season would bring more visitors.

In Europe, many preparing to celebrate were still reeling from this week's truck attack on the Berlin Christmas market.

Hundreds of investigators were working through the holiday season hunting possible accomplices to Tunisian Anis Amri, who was killed Friday in a shootout with Italian police near Milan.

Amri, 24, is believed to have hijacked a truck and used it to mow down holiday revellers at the market on Monday, killing 12 people in an attack claimed by the Islamic State (IS) militant group.

Tunisia said Saturday it had arrested three men suspected of links with Amri, including his nephew.

Locals and tourists in Berlin visited the Christmas market targeted in the attack, and many took a moment to quietly light a candle or lay flowers for the victims.

"It's really nice there are so many people here and it's still open," said Marianne Weile, 56, from Copenhagen.

"So even though you are really sad about what happened you can still keep Christmas. It's not like this crazy guy ruined it for everybody."

Security was tight elsewhere in Europe for the holidays, including at Milan's cathedral, where police were out in force and concrete barricades had been erected around the Piazza del Duomo, where a Christmas market is held.

In France, 91,000 police, gendarmes and soldiers had been deployed to guard public spaces including churches and markets.

In the northern city of Lille, concrete blocks had been laid in areas around the city to prevent vehicle attacks, prompting 62-year-old Michelle to ask: "How far are we going to go?"

Despite the security fears, many were braving winter temperatures to take part in traditional markets and other festivities.

Among them some 30 hardy Slovaks participated in a winter swim at Bratislava's Zlate Piesky lake, some drinking beer in the nearly freezing water.

In London, meat-lovers converged on Smithfield Market for the traditional Christmas Eve auction at butcher Harts, waving banknotes in the air as they bid on turkeys, pork cuts and rump steaks.

Prime Minister Theresa May used her first Christmas message to urge Britain to come together in 2017 after a year of bitter divisions exposed by the Brexit referendum.

As families gathered for Christmas, May said "coming together is also important for us as a country."

Christians in Syria's Aleppo were looking forward to celebrations after President Bashar al-Assad's forces retook full control of the city following a rebel withdrawal this week.

Members of Aleppo's Catholic minority have been preparing for the first Christmas mass in five years at the Saint Elias Cathedral in the Old City.

The famed cathedral's roof collapsed years ago under a salvo of rocket fire, but this week members of the community were clearing out debris to prepare for the service.

"All our memories are here -- this is where we celebrated all our feast days, our joys," said Bashir Badawi, rummaging through rubble for wood and scrap metal to make a crude Nativity scene.

"We want to transform all this destruction into something beautiful."

In Bartalla near the Iraqi city of Mosul, Christians were also holding a service for the first time since their town was recaptured from IS.

The Islamist militants destroyed crosses at the Mar Shimoni church in Bartalla and set it alight, but volunteers worked for days to ready it for the first service in more than two and a half years.

"We want to deliver the message that we are staying in this country and that these are our roots and our origins," Father Yaqub Saadi, the church's priest, told AFP.

In the mostly Catholic Philippines, authorities began evacuating thousands of people and shut down dozens of ports as a strong typhoon threatened to wallop the country's east coast on Christmas Day.

Seafaring vessels in the area were ordered to stay at port, while one airline cancelled 18 Christmas Day flights.

"It's sad that I could not join my parents for Christmas," technician Reagan Sumukit told AFP as the coastguard shut down the port of Tabaco.

Pope Francis, the leader of the of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, was to deliver his traditional "Urbi et Orbi" (To the City and The World) Christmas message from the balcony of Saint Peter's Basilica on Sunday.

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