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Christmas celebrations underway in Bethlehem

Thousands of Christians have begun to celebrate Christmas Eve at the historic birthplace of Jesus, the West Bank town of Bethlehem. But the Middle East region remains troubled for Christians.

Pilgrims and tourists made their way south from Jerusalem, past Israel's controversial separation wall to reach the town of Bethlehem, the cradle of Christianity, on Tuesday.

Patches of melting snow remained on the ground there following an unusual blizzard earlier this month, while a towering Santa Claus figure was set up in Manger Square outside the focus point of the celebrations, the Church of the Nativity - the traditional birthplace of Jesus.

Jerusalem's Latin patriarch Fouad Twal was due to lead the procession and celebrate midnight mass, with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton among those in attendance.

The number of festive season visitors to Bethlehem dropped following the Palestinian uprising of 2000, but has steadily been climbing in recent years due to a period of relative calm in Israeli-Palestinian conflicts. Peace talks brokered by the United States were re-launched this year after being stalled for three years, but as yet there have been no visible signs of progress.

Palestinian Tourism Minister Rula Maayah said the Palestinians "deserve to have peace."

Struggle for Christians

But this Christmas will be a struggle for many of Christians worldwide, with those from ancient communities in Syria among the millions displaced by the country's civil war. Residents of the south-west Syria village of Maalula, many of whom still speak the ancient Aramaic language of Jesus, recall a joyful celebration.

"We would decorate the Christmas tree, and friends and relatives would get together for midnight mass. People were happy,” said Juliana, a 22-year-old refugee from Maalula, in Damascus. "This year, we will attend mass of course but there won't be any Christmas tree or manger. We are refugees now."

In the Philippines, people are struggling to rebuild their lives after the devastation of November's Typhoon Haiyan, which left almost 8,000 people dead or missing.

Survivors were determined to continue celebrating Christmas in their flattened communities, roasting hogs and filling churches for services. "Nothing can stop us from welcoming Christmas even though we have lost our home," said 63-year-old Ellen Miano in Tacloban, which bore the force of the storm.

se/ph (AFP, AP, dpa)

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