Midnight mass has been celebrated in Bethlehem amid fresh hopes of peace in the Middle East.
The presence of moderate Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas reflected the sense of optimism. He filled the seat which had been left empty for Yasser Arafat for three Christmases past because Israel had stopped him travelling to the biblical West Bank town. Widely expected to win next month’s election to replace the late Palestinian president, Abbas has urged a resumption of negotiations on ending violence and creating a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Christ’s birthplace was not far from the Pope’s mind as he led the world’s one billion Roman Catholics into Christmas Day. A prayer for the Middle East was included in midnight mass at St Peter’s Basilica. Braving Parkinson’s Disease to deliver his sermon, the pontiff told the congregation that the troubled world needed the message of Jesus more than ever. The service was watched by tens of millions live on television in more than 70 countries. This is Pope John Paul’s 27th Christmas as Roman Catholic leader. And, despite his 84 years and ill health, he has a typically busy seasonal schedule ahead of him.