Christians across the world have begun celebrating Christmas with services.
Pope Francis is holding midnight mass at the Vatican.
In the holy city of Bethlehem, the West Bank town where it is believed that Jesus was born, events have been overshadowed by recent violence between Palestinians and Israelis.
Indonesia was one of the first countries to mark Christmas Day.
Photo AFP/Getty Images
Celebrations are taking place in the West Bank town where it is believed that Jesus was born.
However, this year they are overshadowed by the latest Israeli-Palestinian violence that shows no signs of abating.
Shepherds watching their flocks by night are believed by Christians to have been the first to hear about Jesus’ birth. Tradition has it that they were told the news by an angel in the Shepherds’ Field in Beit Sahur, next to Bethlehem.
According to the Bible, there was no room at the inn in Bethlehem for Mary and Joseph. With no bed available, baby Jesus was laid in a manger.
The Nativity story tells how wise men, or magi, came to pay their homage to Jesus bringing him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
A Christmas Eve Mass has been held by in Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus.
Christian pilgrims from across the world came to Bethlehem to celebrate the birth of our Lord.
In a homily, Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal called on Jews, Muslims and Christians to “live together as equals”.
Referring to violence in Gaza and Jerusalem, Patriarch Fouad Twal said he hoped 2015 “would be better than this difficult year”.
Thousands of pilgrims earlier crowded into Manger Square to watch a procession led by Patriarch Fouad Twal.
The midnight Mass took place in the Church of the Nativity which marks the spot where Christians believe Jesus was born in the West Bank town.
Patriarch Fouad Twal, the most senior Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land, said the region had become “a land of conflict”.
“I hope next year there will be no separation wall and I hope we will have bridges of peace instead,” he said, referring to the barrier Israel is building in and around the West Bank, which separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem. Israel says the barrier is necessary to prevent attacks by militants.
“Peace comes from justice and we have a cause which we hope will be solved soon,” the Patriarch added.
His sentiment was echoed by Palestinian Tourism Minister Rula Maayah.
“Our message this Christmas is a message of peace like every year, but what we added this year is that all we want from Christmas is justice,” the minister said.
“Justice for our people, justice for our case and the right to live like all other people in the world in our independent state without the occupation.”
Patriarch Fouad Twal urged Christians not to forget the residents of Gaza, where up to 19,600 families displaced by the 50-day conflict between Israel and Palestinian militants are still in need of medium- and long-term shelter, and the people of Syria and Iraq, who are struggling to cope with a civil war and the advance of jihadist militants from Islamic State (ISIS).
Crowds of pilgrims and tourists have begun to gather in the biblical town of Bethlehem to kick off Christmas Eve celebrations.
The nearby Church of the Nativity sits on the spot where the Bible says Jesus was born.
The number of visitors to Bethlehem has been steadily rising in recent years as peace talks to resolve the Middle East conflict have resumed.
Crowds of pilgrims and tourists have begun to gather in the biblical town of Bethlehem to kick off Christmas Eve celebrations
Despite the erection of Israel’s separation barrier with the West Bank, which appears as a high concrete wall around the town, three gates have been opened for Christmas to allow the Christmas procession led by the Latin Patriarch coming from Jerusalem to enter the city.
In Vatican City, Pope Francis has made a Christmas visit to Pope Emeritus Benedict, 86, and said he found his predecessor looking well.
Pope Francis, who was elected in March, spent about 30 minutes with Pope Emeritus Benedict in an ex-convent on the Vatican grounds where the former pope has been living since he stepped down earlier this year, the Reuters news agency reports.
Bethlehem Christmas celebrations will culminate in Midnight Mass at the 1,700-year-old Church of the Nativity, built on the spot where it is believed Jesus was born
Hundreds of thousands of Christian pilgrims and tourists from around the world are expected in Bethlehem for Christmas Midnight Mass.
About 120,000 visitors are in the Palestinian West Bank town, 30% up on last year, officials said.
Crowds gathered early to sing carols around the 50ft (15m) Christmas tree in Manger Square.
Celebrations will culminate in Midnight Mass at the 1,700-year-old Church of the Nativity, built on the spot where it is believed Jesus was born.
The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fuad Twal, has travelled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, where he will later lead the Midnight Mass.
He passed through the massive gate in the controversial Israeli security barrier that separates Jerusalem from Bethlehem and arrived in Manger Square, where he was greeted with a bagpipe band.
Patriarch Fuad Twal, a Palestinian who is a Jordanian citizen, has expressed concern for Christians in the current upheavals in the Middle East and asked them to support the moves towards freedom and democracy.
His midnight homily will urge “the return of calm and reconciliation in Syria, in Egypt, in Iraq and in North Africa”.
It will read: “O Child of Bethlehem, in this New Year, we place in your hands this troubled Middle East and, above all, our youth full of legitimate aspirations, who are frustrated by the economic and political situation, and in search of a better future.”
Boy scouts with drums and bagpipes have taken part in the traditional afternoon procession through the town.
Restaurants and shops selling memorabilia such as olive wood-carved religious statues were doing brisk trade as habit-wearing monks rubbed shoulders with Father Christmas hat-wearing Filipino tourists.
Bethlehem Mayor Victor Batarseh said he hoped the festivities would bring Palestinians closer to their dream of statehood.
Israel controls access to Bethlehem through checkpoints and the controversial barrier.
Residents say their livelihoods are imperiled by the barrier, which skirts around the edge of Bethlehem, surrounding it on three sides.
Once predominantly Christian, two-thirds of Bethlehem’s 50,000 residents are now Muslim.
Some say the economic restrictions imposed by Israel are the main reason behind the exodus of Christians from the West Bank; others cite persecution by militant Muslims.