15,000 people packed into the square outside, and it was a crowded Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem for the Christmas mass.
Pilgims and dignitaries stood side by side to hear Latin Patriarch Fuad al-Tuwal give his Christmas message in six languages, and call on visitors to return home bearing a message of peace.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was among the guests, but it was not a moment for politics. In fact, with mild weather there was a tangible festive atmosphere, and locals said after years of tourists staying away attendance was up and hotels were expecting a 60 to 70 percent jump in business this year.
However the celebrations took place within sight of Israel’s security wall, which cuts off Bethlehem from nearby Jerusalem, a reminder that peace and goodwill to all men remains a distant prospect in the Holy Land.