Christmas Pilgrims Gather in Bethlehem after Hard Year

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Pilgrims from across the world descended on Jesus's birthplace in Bethlehem Wednesday to begin the global celebration of Christmas after a violence-plagued year brought suffering to many Middle Eastern Christians.

The not-so-little West Bank town was bustling with activity ahead of the biggest night of the year which will culminate in midnight mass at the Nativity Church built over the spot where Mary gave birth to Jesus.

In Manger Square outside the church, a man dressed as Father Christmas was handing out sweets and the wail of bagpipes rang out as troops of Palestinian scouts marched past a giant green Christmas tree decorated with red, black and silver baubles -- the colors of the Palestinian flag.

But for many faithful across the region, the festivities will be tinged with sadness following a year of bloodshed marked by a surge in the persecution of Christians that has drawn international condemnation.

"For many of you, the music of your Christmas hymns will also be accompanied by tears and sighs," Pope Francis wrote in a long letter addressed to Christians in the Middle East.

Even in the Palestinian territories, Christmas will be a deliberately low-key affair after a July-August war with Israel which left nearly 2,200 Gazans dead and the tiny enclave in ruins in the third such conflict in six years.

Cars carrying foreign pilgrims could be seen passing through the festooned streets of Bethlehem early on Wednesday while small groups could be seen gathering in Manger Square ahead of the midnight mass.

In Rome, Francis will celebrate the Christmas Vigil mass in St Peter's Basilica from 2030 GMT before delivering his traditional "Urbi et Orbi" blessing.

Ahead of the celebrations, the Argentine pontiff voiced concern about the growing persecution of Christians, some of whom he said had been "brutally driven out" of areas where they have lived since New Testament times.

In a clear illusion to the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group, he spoke of "the work of a newer and disturbing terrorist organization, of previously unimaginable dimensions, which has perpetrated all kinds of abuses and inhuman acts."

In Baghdad, Chaldean Patriarch Louis Sako told AFP that around 150,000 Christians had been displaced by an offensive spearheaded by IS, which has targeted Christians and other minorities, with dozens leaving Iraq each day.

Iraq's displaced Christians "still live in a tragic situation and there are no quick solutions for them," Sako told AFP, saying that particularly this Christmas, they needed signs to reassure them that they "are not left alone and not forgotten."

Francis also deplored the situation in Iraq and said that dialogue between different faiths was the only answer to religious extremism.

"The tragic situation faced by our Christian brothers and sisters in Iraq, as well as by the Yazidi and members of other religious and ethnic communities, demands that all religious leaders clearly speak out to condemn these crimes unanimously and unambiguously, and to denounce the practice of invoking religion in order to justify them," he wrote.

In Syria, Christians in the wartorn city of Homs were enjoying their first Christmas in three years in the Hamidiyeh neighborhood, with a brightly colored tree and a manger made from rubble set up in the middle of the ruins.

"Our joy is indescribable," said Taghrid Naanaa while picking out tree decorations at a local shop in the district, which was recaptured from rebels by the Syrian army earlier this year.

Elsewhere around the world, Cuba, where Christmas festivities have been long banned by the regime, will be celebrating an anticipated gift -- rapprochement with the United States.

But in France, the busy Christmas period has been marred by a series of attacks, including one linked to Islamic extremism, which killed one person and left another 25 wounded.

And in Sierra Leone, all public Christmas celebrations were canceled as a result of the Ebola crisis, with soldiers deployed on the streets over the holiday season to prevent spontaneous street celebrations, officials said.

Ahead of the midnight mass in Bethlehem, which will be attended by Jerusalem's Latin Patriarch Fuad Twal, the top Catholic cleric in the Holy Land, Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas laid out his own Christmas wishlist.

"This Christmas we deliver a very special message to the world: All I want for Christmas is justice," he said as the Palestinians press a major diplomatic push at the United Nations to seek an end to Israel's decades-long occupation.

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