The Latin patriarch of Jerusalem called on Tuesday for a "just and equitable solution" to the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict and for reconciliation in the Middle East.
Monsignor Fuad Twal issued his plea in a homily he was to deliver at Christmas Eve midnight mass in Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, a copy of which was obtained by AFP.
The service was to be attended by Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas and other dignitaries.
Addressing Abbas, he said "we pray for you and for your mission in finding a just and equitable solution to the present conflict, for Palestinian unity, for the peace and prosperity of your country. We ask God to grant you wisdom and courage."
"In the Holy Land, we are living a conflict that does not seem to have a solution in the short term and which weighs heavily" on its inhabitants," said Twal, who its senior Roman Catholic prelate.
"This painful reality raises numerous questions concerning our future in this country and causes us much worry," added the 73-year-old patriarch.
But "the answer lies neither in emigration nor in closing in on ourselves. It consists in staying here and in living and dying here," he added, echoing Pope Francis's concerns of a massive exodus of Christians from the Middle East.
"From this Holy Place, we remember all the adversities in our world: from civil wars in Africa to the typhoon in the Philippines, the difficult situation in Egypt and in Iraq, the tragedy playing out in Syria.
He also spoke of "our own problems here: the prisoners and their families who hope for their release, the poor who have lost their land and their homes demolished, families waiting to be reunited, those out of work and all who suffer from the economic crisis."
In prayer, he said: "O Holy Child, God of goodness and mercy, look with kindness on the Holy Land and on our people who live in Palestine, in Israel, in Jordan and all in the Middle East. Grant them the gift of reconciliation so that they may all be brothers - sons of one God."
Thousands flock to Bethlehem
Bethlehem was packed with thousands of Christian pilgrims from around the world ahead of Midnight Mass on Tuesday.
The heavy turnout, its highest in years, helped lift spirits in Bethlehem as leaders expressed hope that the coming year would finally bring the Palestinians an independent state of their own.
The number of visitors remained below the record levels of the late 1990s, when Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts were at their height.
Following a Palestinian uprising that began in 2000, the numbers plunged. But thanks to a period of relative calm, they have been steadily climbing in recent years _ and are expected to get an extra push this year thanks to the resumption of peace talks.
“Our message is a message of justice and peace,” said Palestinian Tourism Minister Rula Maayah. “We Palestinians are seeking peace and we deserve to have peace and our children deserve to live in peace.”
Maayah said the number of visitors to Bethlehem was expected to jump by about 14 percent from last year.
A spokesman said 10,000 foreign visitors had entered town by the early evening, slightly higher than last year. Israel's Tourism Ministry, which coordinates the visits with the Palestinians, said the number could reach 25,000 during the holiday season.
The fighting continues
Despite the Christmas cheer, Mideast politics loomed in the background. In order to enter Bethlehem, Twal's motorcade had to cross through the hulking concrete separation barrier that Israel built during the uprising.
Israel says the barrier is needed to keep attackers from entering nearby Jerusalem, but Palestinians say the structure has stifled the town and stolen their land.
Maayah said that the barrier, along with nearby Israeli settlements and Israeli control of archaeological sites in the West Bank, has made it difficult to develop the tourism sector.
In addition, few Palestinians seem to think that the current round of peace talks will bear fruit.
US Secretary of State John Kerry re-launched the talks last summer, but there have been no signs of progress.
Israel carried out a series of airstrikes and other attacks Tuesday in the Gaza Strip in retaliation for the deadly shooting of an Israeli civilian who had been working along the border.
The fighting, which left a three-year-old Palestinian girl dead, was the heaviest in more than a year.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP and AP)
Date created : 2013-12-24