BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) – Thousands of Christians from the world over packed Manger Square in Bethlehem Monday to celebrate the birth of Jesus in the ancient West Bank town where he was born.

For their Palestinian hosts, this holiday season was an especially joyous one, with the hardships of the Israeli occupation that so often clouded previous Christmas Eve celebrations eased by the United Nations’ recent recognition of an independent state of Palestine.

Festivities led up to the Midnight Mass at St. Catherine’s Church, next to the fourth-century Church of the Nativity, built over the grotto where tradition says Jesus was born.

“From this holy place, I invite politicians and men of good will to work with determination for peace and reconciliation that encompasses Palestine and Israel in the midst of all the suffering in the Middle East,” said the top Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land, Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal in his annual address. “Please continue to fight for a just cause to achieve peace and security for the people of the Holy Land.”

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