BETHLEHEM, Palestinian Territories (AFP) – The Middle East's senior Catholic cleric called for peace and reconciliation in a traditional Christmas Eve midnight mass before thousands in the birthplace of Jesus Christ.
"During this Christmas season, may the sound of the bells of our churches drown the noise of weapons in our wounded Middle East," Latin Patriarch Fuad Twal told an audience that included Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.
Pilgrims from around the world gathered in St. Catherine's Church on Bethlehem's Manger Square to hear the traditional address in the city where Christians believe Jesus Christ was born.
As peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians remain stalled, Twal offered a vision of a better, more peaceful future.
"Our hope for Christmas is that Jerusalem not only becomes the capital of two nations, but also a model for the world, of harmony and coexistence of the three monotheistic religions."
He also drew attention to the plight of Iraqi Christians, after a bloody October attack on a Baghdad church.
"We recall the tragedy that struck the Christian community in Iraq. Such fanatic actions are universally condemned by Christians and Muslims," he said.
The incident, which killed 44 worshippers and two priests, cast a shadow over Iraq's dwindling Christian population, a frequent target of bloody attacks.
Twal called for dialogue in the Middle East to overcome fundamentalism, and urged the faithful to reach out to their enemies in reconciliation.
"In a world torn apart by violence and fundamentalism, which legitimises the worst actions, including killings in churches, the Child of Bethlehem reminds us that the first commandment is Love.
"He teaches us forgiveness and reconciliation, even with our enemies."
After Twal's homily, a choir dressed in traditional Palestinian outfits, including black dresses with red embroidery for the women, sang hymns and the faithful took communion.
In the hours leading up to the mass, excited pilgrims inside St Catherine's, some of the lucky few to secure a coveted entrance pass, listened to the chanting of Franciscan monks.
Abbas and Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad sat near the front of the church, along with diplomats from several European countries.
Church bells rang and the choir sang Christmas carols as a delegation of Korean nuns dressed in traditional Korean outfits listened.
Herve, a French tourist in town with his wife and three children, said the experience was a "magical and mysterious moment."
"It's been a dream for a long time to be here for Christmas," he told AFP.
"It's a night of communion with the whole world and it's a very nice Christmas gift for my family."
In Manger Square, those who couldn't secure a ticket for the mass enjoyed the festive atmosphere, taking pictures and fighting off the crisp night air with steaming boiled corn-on-the-cob and cups of sweet Arabic coffee from dozens of vendors.
A record number of tourists and pilgrims have flocked into the occupied West Bank town in the past two years after nearly a decade dominated by fears of violence that left Bethlehem virtually deserted at Christmas.
Before nightfall, a long line of pilgrims waited to enter the grotto inside the Church of the Nativity where Mary is said to have given birth to Jesus Christ after she and Joseph could not find any room at the inn.
Earlier, crowds lined Bethlehem's Star Street and Manger Square to watch the traditional Christmas Eve procession that brought Twal into the town centre.
"It's amazing. To be in the birthplace of Christ on Christmas, you can't get better than that," said Brady MacCarl, 22.
During the Christmas period, the Palestinian Authority expects at least 90,000 people to flood into Bethlehem, which sits behind a major Israeli checkpoint and the controversial security wall.
But unlike in years past, when the spectre of unrest and violence kept tourists away and those who visited spent the night in Israel instead, Bethlehem's 24 hotels were all fully booked.
The Christmas season will cap a year of unprecedented tourism for Bethlehem and the Palestinian territories, where visitor revenues are sorely needed.
Tens of thousands of Palestinians from the West Bank and Arab Israelis were also expected in Bethlehem, along with several hundred from the tiny Christian community in Gaza who were able to secure rare Israeli entry permits for the holiday.
Meanwhile, Israeli police and medics said three Italian pilgrims were killed and two others were seriously injured when their car crashed in northern Israel. Local media reported that all five were nuns.