BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Thousands of pilgrims from around the world descended on the traditional birthplace of Jesus on Thursday, greeted by choruses, scout troops and rock bands for the most upbeat Christmas celebrations this Palestinian town has seen in years.
But the Holy Land's top Roman Catholic clergyman reminded followers that peace remains elusive, while the threat of sectarian violence in the Islamic world and the lava spilling from a volcano in the Philippines clouded the celebrations for other Christian communities across the globe.
Residents of Bethlehem, hemmed in by an Israeli security barrier and still recovering from years of violence, celebrated their town's annual day in the spotlight along with pilgrims and tourists. Visitors milled around Manger Square, mingling with clergymen, camera crews and locals hawking food and trinkets.
Christmas in Bethlehem has its incongruous elements — the troops of Palestinian Boy Scouts who wear kilts and play bagpipes in one of the town's holiday traditions, for example, or the inflatable Santa Clauses hanging from church pillars and storefronts looking out of place and overdressed in this Middle Eastern town with not a snowflake in sight.
The Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal reminded listeners in a holiday address that peace remains out of reach. "The wish that we most want, we most hope for, is not coming. We want peace," Twal said after he passed into Bethlehem in a traditional holiday procession from nearby Jerusalem.
Twal and his convoy of dozens of vehicles entered Palestinian-controlled territory through a massive steel gate in Israel's heavily guarded West Bank separation barrier, escorted by Israeli soldiers and police in jeeps.
The barrier and the heavy Israeli security presence served as reminders of the friction and hostilities that have thwarted peace efforts. Only hours later, an Israeli man was shot and killed in the West Bank in an attack by Palestinian gunmen. Such attacks, once common, have become rare in recent years as the West Bank has regained a semblance of normalcy. The Israeli military identified the man as a resident of a nearby settlement, and a little-known Palestinian faction took responsibility in an e-mail sent to journalists.
Obamas salute military: President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama offered Christmas wishes to the nation on Thursday, including a special thanks for the U.S. military. In his weekly radio and Internet address, Obama saluted the "selfless spirit" of those who serve and said he has been "humbled, profoundly" by those who made the ultimate sacrifice. "So to all our men and women in uniform spending the holidays far from home — whether it's at a base here in the States, a mess hall in Iraq or a remote outpost in Afghanistan — know that you are in our thoughts and our prayers. … And this holiday season — and every holiday season — know that we are doing everything in our power to make sure you can succeed in your missions and come home safe to your families." The Obamas left the White House Thursday morning for the family's traditional Christmas vacation in Hawaii, where he was born.
Republicans offer wishes: Americans should take time to think about the less fortunate and the members of the military who are serving the country during the holiday season, Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter of California said Thursday. In the weekly GOP radio address, Hunter, who served combat tours as a Marine in Iraq and Afghanistan, said he understands the desire to be home for the holiday season but added: "Thoughts of home remind us of why we serve: because we're proud to be Americans, because we want to pass on to our children the blessings of liberty that we inherited from our forefathers, and because nothing matters more to us than protecting our homes and our families."
Muslim Mitzvah: Many Jews consider Christmas Day an opportunity to serve their community while Christian neighbors celebrate their holiday. This year, on what's also known as Mitzvah Day in southeast Michigan, about 40 Muslims are expected to join 900 Jews for what they call their largest annual day of volunteering. The partnership stemmed from a recent meeting between members of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Michigan, the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit. Jewish and Muslim leaders said they recognized a shared commitment to community service.
Afghanistan blues: For Staff Sgt. Byron Krepcho, it doesn't feel like Christmas. Instead of celebrating Christmas Eve with his family back in Dallas, Krepcho's unit on Thursday fired mortars at enemy positions from Command Post Michigan in Kunar province in eastern Afghanistan. "Ah, Christmas," Krepcho said. "I don't really think about it. I don't think about it as a holiday because I just treat it as another day I've been here. I just go on as any day that I spent here … thinking about going home," said the member of the U.S. Army 2nd Battalion.