Thousands of Christian pilgrims from around the world are celebrating the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.
The day culminated with Christmas Eve Mass at the 1,700-year-old Church of the Nativity, built on the spot where it is believed Jesus was born.
In Bethlehem, Patriarch Fouad Twal, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in Jerusalem voiced his support for a Palestinian state.
Meanwhile in the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI held the traditional Mass at St Peter’s Basilica.
The pontiff urged Christians to “find time and room for God in their fast-paced lives”.
Pope Benedict prayed that Israelis and Palestinians be able to live their lives in peace. He also prayed for peace in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq.
The Mass, usually celebrated at midnight, was brought forward by two hours to avoid tiring the 85-year-old pontiff unduly.
Later on Tuesday, the Pope will deliver his traditional Christmas message to the city of Rome and to the world (Urbi et Orbi).
Thousands of Christian pilgrims from around the world are celebrating the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem
On Monday, Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal said this Christmas would be a celebration of “the birth of Christ our lord and the birth of the state of Palestine”.
“The path [to statehood] remains long, and will require a united effort,” he said.
The patriarch, who was born in Jordan, led a symbolic procession from Jerusalem’s Old City to the West Bank city, passing through the separation barrier and checkpoint built by the Israelis.
He was met at the church in Manger Square by thousands of tourists, pilgrims and clergy.
The patriarch later held the Mass at the Church of Nativity.
“From this holy place, I invite politicians and men of good will to work with determination for peace and reconciliation that encompasses Palestine and Israel in the midst of all the sufferings in the Middle East,” he said.
And referring to last month’s hostilities between Israel and Gaza militants, the patriarch said his prayers included “all Arab and Jewish families that have been touched by the conflict”.
Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas was present at the Mass.
In November, the United Nations upgraded the status of the Palestinians to that of a “non-member observer state”.
Israel – strongly backed by the US – opposed the move, describing it as a Palestinian ploy to bypass stalled peace negotiations.
The Church of Nativity is located in an area of the West Bank governed by the Palestinian Authority.
In June, the church was formally named a Unesco World Heritage Site – the first to be nominated by the Palestinians, who were made full members of Unesco earlier this year.
Christmas celebrations started last night with Pope Benedict XVI holding a midnight mass service at a packed St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.
Pope Benedict XVI used the ceremony to condemn the “superficial glitter” that now imbues the holiday.
The Pontiff, 84, urged the faithful to discover its true meaning and remember the “child in the stable” instead of being consumed by the commercial side of Christmas.
The Vatican traditional service began with a papal procession through the church shortly after 10:00 p.m. local time.
Christmas celebrations started last night with Pope Benedict XVI holding a midnight mass service at a packed St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican
Wearing cream and gold colored vestments, Pope Benedict XVI proceeded into St. Peter’s Basilica standing on a moving platform – a new concession to spare the pontiff the fatigue of having to walk up and down the long center aisle.
In his sermon, Pope Benedict lamented that Christmas has become an increasingly commercial celebration that obscures the simplicity of the message of Christ’s birth.
“Let us ask the Lord to help us see through the superficial glitter of this season, and to discover behind it the child in the stable in Bethlehem, so as to find true joy and true light,” Pope Benedict XVI said.
It was the second time in as many days that the Pontiff has pointed to the need to rediscover faith to confront the problems facing the world today.
In his end-of-year meeting with Vatican officials on Thursday, Pope Benedict said Europe’s financial crisis was largely “based on the ethical crisis looming over the Old Continent”.
The Christmas Eve mass was moved up to 10:00 p.m. from midnight several years ago to spare the Pope a late night. This morning he must deliver the important Christmas Day “Urbi et Orbi” speech (Latin for “to the city and the world). He will also offer brief Christmas greetings in 65 languages.
The Pope speech, delivered from the central loggia of St. Peter’s overlooking the piazza, is usually a survey of sorts of the hardships and wars confronting the globe. It is understood that this year he will base his message on the Arab Spring and the global economic crisis.
There follows an intense two weeks of Christmas-related public appearances that will test the Pontiff’s stamina amid signs that fatigue is starting to slow him down.
Hours before the evening Mass began, Pope Benedict lit a candle in his studio window overlooking St. Peter’s Square in a traditional sign of peace. A few hundred people had gathered in the square to watch the candle lighting and the unveiling of the Vatican’s larger-than-life nativity scene.
Next weekend, Pope Benedict XVI will preside over a New Year’s Eve vespers service, followed by a New Year’s Day Mass. A few days later he’ll celebrate Epiphany Mass followed by his traditional baptizing of babies in the Vatican’s frescoed Sistine Chapel.
Security was tight at last night’s celebration, as it has been in recent years. In both 2008 and 2009 there were Christmas Eve security breaches, in which a woman with a history of psychiatric problems and wearing a telltale red sweatshirt jumped the wooden security barrier along the basilica’s central aisle.
In 2008, the Pope’s security detail blocked her from getting to Benedict. But in 2009, she managed to grab Benedict’s vestments and pulled him to the ground. The Pope was unhurt and continued along with the service, but a French cardinal who was nearby fell and broke his hip.