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Christmas in times of coronavirus, from Bethlehem to Rome

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Palestinian scout bands parade through Manger Square at the Church of the Nativity, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Thursday, Dec. 24, 2020.
Palestinian scout bands parade through Manger Square at the Church of the Nativity, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Thursday, Dec. 24, 2020.   -   Copyright  Nasser Nasser/Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved
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From Bethlehem to Rome, coronavirus has cast its shadow on Christmas Eve celebrations worldwide on Thursday, with millions forced to cancel plans or scale down festivities under fresh virus restrictions.

Here is a look at Christmas scenes from around the world in times of COVID-19.

Thin crowds in Bethlehem

Bethlehem, where Christians believe Jesus was born, ushered in Christmas eve with streams of bagpipers and drummers but few people were there to greet them.

The Christmas Eve mass at the Church of the Nativity is traditionally the highlight of a holiday season that sees hundreds of thousands of visitors flock to the Palestinian city.

Abed Al Hashlamoun/AP
Apostolic Administrator of the Latin Church in the Holy land Pierbattista Pizzaballa, center, leads a Christmas midnight mass at the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank.Abed Al Hashlamoun/AP

But the closure of Israel's international airport to foreign tourists, along with Palestinian restrictions banning intercity travel in the areas they administer in the West Bank, kept visitors away.

The mass was closed to the public this year and broadcast online, with only clergy and select individuals allowed inside the basilica.

Attendee Jania Shaheen said the holiday was "different this year, because we can't pray at the Nativity Church".

"We can't gather as a family, everybody is afraid... It is good to see some people here today but there is no one compared to last year. It is only for the people of Bethlehem," she said.

Christmas Eve mass in Rome

Pope Francis, spiritual leader of 1.3 billion Catholics across the globe, celebrated Christmas Eve mass in St Peter's Basilica before fewer than 200 masked faithful.

The mass, traditionally held at midnight, had been moved forward by two hours to 7:30 pm CET to meet Italy's curfew rules.

Before the pandemic hit, several thousand believers and tourists had obtained precious tickets to attend the papal mass.

On Thursday evening, St Peter's Square, usually thronged with people on Christmas Eve was deserted, illuminated by the glow of its towering Christmas tree and the lights of a police patrol car.

Tough new coronavirus restrictions were imposed on Thursday over the Christmas and New Year period across Italy, the country hardest hit by the virus in Europe, with nearly 71,000 deaths and more than two million cases since the beginning of the pandemic.

In his homily, the Argentinean pope stressed that the birth of a child reminds us not to spend our days "lamenting our lots, but soothing the tears of those who suffer", serving "the poor".

Francis, who just celebrated his 84th birthday, will address his eighth Christmas message "Urbi et orbi" ("to the city and the world") Friday by video from the apostolic palace, to prevent a crowd from gathering in St Peter's Square.

In Christmas Eve messages earlier Thursday, the Pope expressed his desire to visit crisis-hit Lebanon and urged political leaders in South Sudan to continue working for peace.

Europe's celebrations downbeat

Germany has been forced to cancel its famous Christmas markets, while Belgium residents were largely limited to welcoming a single visitor.

Britons, meanwhile, were cut off from swathes of the world, due to the emergence of a new Covid-19 strain.

Some UK border restrictions have been temporarily relaxed for the holidays, but thousands from other European countries are still stranded in England.

"Home for Christmas? Forget it," said Laurent Beghin, a French truck driver who delivered his cargo but was still stuck days later.

Aaron Chown/AP
A man conducts a COVID-19 test on a driver at the Port of Dover in Kent, England, Thursday Dec. 24, 2020Aaron Chown/AP

New Year's celebrations are also looking downbeat across Europe, with lockdowns looming for Scotland, Northern Ireland and Austria through the post-Christmas period, while Portugal has imposed a New Year's Eve curfew.

Elsewhere in the world

Australians had until recently been looking forward to a relatively COVID-19-free Christmas after travel restrictions across state borders relaxed in recent weeks. But after new cases were detected over the past week, states again closed their borders.

South Koreans woke up Christmas morning to learn that their coronavirus crisis has taken another turn for the worse as officials shut down ski resorts and national parks, restricted hotel occupancy and set fines for restaurants accepting large groups.

Lebanon appeared as an exception this Christmas, lifting most virus measures ahead of the holidays in the hope to encourage spending. Tens of thousands of Lebanese expatriates have arrived home for the holidays, leading to fears of an inevitable surge in cases during the festive season. Lebanon has the largest percentage of Christians in the Middle East - about a third of its 5 million people.