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'Like Times Square at New Year's': Pilgrims mark Christmas in Bethlehem

At midnight mass in the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, the cradle of Christianity, the message was of peace, love and goodwill to all mankind. NBC's Martin Fletcher reports.

Pilgrims and locals celebrated Christmas Day on Tuesday in the ancient Bethlehem church where tradition holds Jesus was born, candles illuminating the sacred site and the joyous sound of prayer filling its overflowing halls.

Overcast skies and a cold wind didn't dampen the spirits of worshippers who came dressed in holiday finery and the traditional attire of foreign lands to mark the holy day in this biblical West Bank town. Bells pealed and long lines formed inside the fourth-century Church of the Nativity complex as Christian faithful waited eagerly to see the grotto that is Jesus' traditional birthplace.

Duncan Hardock, 24, a writer from MacLean, Va., traveled to Bethlehem from the republic of Georgia, where he had been teaching English. After passing through the separation barrier Israel built to ward off West Bank attackers, he walked to Bethlehem's Manger Square where the church stands.

"I feel we got to see both sides of Bethlehem in a really short period of time," Hardock said. "On our walk from the wall, we got to see the lonesome, closed side of Bethlehem ... But the moment we got into town, we're suddenly in the middle of the party."

Bethlehem lies 6 miles south of Jerusalem. Entry to the city is controlled by Israel, which occupied the West Bank in 1967.

Hardock's girlfriend, 22-year-old Jennifer Gemmell of Longmont, Colorado, compared the festive spirit in Manger Square on Christmas Eve, saying "it's like being at Times Square at New Year's."

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The cavernous church was unable to hold all the worshippers who had hoped to celebrate Christmas Day Mass inside. A loudspeaker outside the church broadcast the service to the hundreds in the square who could not pack inside.

Paul J. Richards / AFP - Getty Images

In churches and bus stations, on water skis and bicycles, people from the Middle East to middle America celebrate Christmas.

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Tourists in the square posed for pictures as vendors hawked olive wood rosaries, nativity scenes, corn on the cob, roasted nuts, tea and coffee.

An official from the Palestinian tourism ministry predicted 10,000 foreigners would visit Bethlehem on Christmas Day and said 15,000 visited on Christmas Eve — up 20 percent from a year earlier. The official, Rula Maia'a, attributed the rise in part to the Church of the Nativity's classification earlier this year as a U.N. World Heritage Site.

Christians from Israel — Arab citizens and others — also boosted the number of visitors.

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On Christmas Eve, thousands of Christians from all over the world packed the square, which was awash in light, resplendent with decorations and adorned by a lavishly decorated, 55-foot fir tree. Their Palestinian hosts, who welcome this holiday as the high point of their city's year, were especially joyous this season, proud of the United Nations' recognition of an independent state of Palestine just last month.

On Monday evening, Pope Benedict XVI prayed that Israelis and Palestinians live in peace and freedom, and asked the faithful to pray for strife-torn Syria as well as Lebanon and Iraq.

He urged people to reflect upon what they find time for in their busy, technology-driven lives.

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"The great moral question of our attitude toward the homeless, toward refugees and migrants takes on a deeper dimension: Do we really have room for God when he seeks to enter under our roof? Do we have time and space for him?" the pope said.

"The faster we can move, the more efficient our time-saving appliances become, the less time we have. And God? The question of God never seems urgent," Benedict lamented.

Later Tuesday, the world's Christmas focus will shift to Vatican City, where the pope will deliver his traditional "Urbi et Orbi" speech — Latin for "to the city and the world" — from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica to thousands of pilgrims, tourists and Romans gathered in the piazza below.

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