BETHLEHEM (AFP) — Pilgrims gathered in Bethlehem on Saturday for Christmas Eve as Europeans prepared to mark the holidays under the shadow of the Berlin market attack.
Dozens of Palestinians and tourists flocked to Bethlehem’s Manger Square near the Church of the Nativity, where celebrations will culminate with a midnight mass at the site where Christians believe Jesus was born.
Some snapped selfies near the square’s giant Christmas tree and watched the annual Scouts parade in the city, a short drive from Jerusalem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
“It feels pretty awesome,” said Valeria, a 21-year-old from the US state of Wisconsin.
“This is my first Christmas away from home… but this is really amazing to be in Bethlehem.”
Violence put a damper on celebrations in Bethlehem last year, as a wave of knife, gun and car-ramming attacks by Palestinians targeted Israelis and reduced sharply the number of Christmas visitors.
The unrest has subsided in recent months and, with major Bethlehem hotels booked up, many in the city were optimistic that this year’s holiday season would bring more visitors.
Christians in Syria’s Aleppo were also looking forward to celebrations after President Bashar Assad’s forces retook full control of the city following a rebel withdrawal this week.
Members of Aleppo’s Catholic minority have been preparing for the first Christmas mass in five years at the Saint Elias Cathedral in the Old City.
The famed cathedral’s roof collapsed years ago under a salvo of rocket fire, but this week members of the community were clearing out debris to prepare for the service.
“All our memories are here — this is where we celebrated all our feast days, our joys,” said Bashir Badawi, rummaging through rubble for wood and scrap metal to make a crude Nativity scene.
“We want to transform all this destruction into something beautiful.”
In Europe, many preparing to celebrate were still reeling from this week’s truck attack on the Berlin Christmas market.
Hundreds of investigators were working through the holiday season hunting possible accomplices to Tunisian Anis Amri, who was killed Friday in a shoot-out with Italian police near Milan.
Amri, 24, is believed to have hijacked a truck and used it to mow down holiday revellers at the market on Monday, killing 12 people in an attack claimed by the Islamic State group.
Security failings in the case have reignited tensions over the more than one million migrants and refugees who have arrived in Germany since last year, but in his Christmas message President Joachim Gauck urged Germans not to give in to fear.
“Especially in times of terror attacks, we must not deepen the divisions,” he said.
Security was tight in other parts of Europe for the holidays, including at Milan’s cathedral, where police were out in force and concrete barricades had been erected around the Piazza del Duomo, where a Christmas market is held.
In France, 91,000 police, gendarmes and soldiers had been deployed to guard public spaces including churches and markets.
“The threat is strong, but our response has never been stronger,” Interior Minister Bruno Le Roux said.
In the northern city of Lille, concrete blocks had been laid in areas around the city to prevent vehicle attacks, prompting 62-year-old Michelle to ask: “How far are we going to go?”
Despite the security fears, many were braving winter temperatures to take part in traditional markets and other festivities.
Among them some 30 hardy Slovaks participated in a winter swim at Bratislava’s Zlate Piesky lake, some drinking beer in the nearly freezing water.
Pope Francis, the leader of the of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, was to deliver his traditional “Urbi et Orbi” (To the City and The World) Christmas message from the balcony of Saint Peter’s Basilica on Sunday.
In the mostly Catholic Philippines, authorities began evacuating thousands of people and shut down dozens of ports as a strong typhoon threatened to wallop the country’s east coast on Christmas Day.
Nock-Ten is expected to be packing winds of up to 250 kilometers per hour (155 miles per hour) when it crosses over Catanduanes, a remote island of 250,000 people in the Bicol region, late Sunday.
It is then expected to hit the country’s main island of Luzon, including the capital Manila, on Monday.
Seafaring vessels in the area were ordered to stay at port, while one airline cancelled 18 Christmas Day flights to and from Bicol airports.
“It’s sad that I could not join my parents for Christmas,” technician Reagan Sumukit told AFP as the coastguard shut down the port of Tabaco.
Sri Lanka meanwhile surpassed the world record for the tallest artificial Christmas tree Saturday, with a 57-metre (187-foot) structure erected in Colombo.
The project initially ran into opposition from the Church, which said the money would be better spent on charity, but went ahead after authorities secured the archbishop’s blessing.
In Britain, Prime Minister Theresa May used her first Christmas message to urge the country to come together in 2017 after a year of bitter divisions exposed by the Brexit referendum.
As families gathered for Christmas, May said “coming together is also important for us as a country”.
“As we leave the European Union we must seize a historic opportunity to forge a bold new role for ourselves in the world and to unite our country as we move forward into the future.”