By Jeff Abramowitz and Jan-Uwe Ronneburger
BETHLEHEM, Palestine — Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad Twal — the Catholic church’s top spiritual leader in the Holy Land — on Saturday led the procession on the eight-kilometer (about 5-mile) road from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.
For the Christmas procession of about 30 vehicles, the Israeli authorities opened a large iron gate in the Israeli-built separation wall that cuts Palestinian-controlled Bethlehem off from Israeli-controlled Jerusalem.
Twal was to be met by Bethlehem officials once he entered the city limits, before proceeding on foot for the final few hundred meters to Manger Square in the heart of the city, where the Church of the Nativity is located, one of the oldest churches in the world.
Thousands of pilgrims celebrating Christmas in the birthplace of Jesus Christ were waiting for the procession to arrive at Manger Square.
An estimated 90,000 pilgrims were expected to visit the Holy Land for the festival, the Israeli Tourism Ministry said Friday. The majority of them will make their way to the southern West Bank city, joined by thousands more Christians who live or work in Israel and the Palestinian territories.
City authorities put the number of visitors to Bethlehem over the past year at 2 million, the same figure as in 2010. Of these, the majority were from the former Soviet Union.
Midnight mass was to be held in Saint Catherine Church, the Roman Catholic section of the Church of the Nativity, built according to tradition on the site of the stable where Jesus was born.
Christians, once the majority of Bethlehem’s inhabitants, now account for approximately 27 percent of the city’s residents.
Many have emigrated in the past year, giving sections of the historic city an abandoned look.
On Wednesday, speaking at his annual Christmas news conference in Jerusalem’s Old City, Twal called on Christians throughout the world not to be afraid to visit the Holy Land.
He said Christians would be warmly welcomed when they make their pilgrimage to Jerusalem and Bethlehem. “Do not be afraid. Our warm welcome awaits you,” he said.
Twal, who is Jordanian-born, said the Holy Land was waiting for an agreement that would end the decades-old Palestinian-Israeli conflict that has plagued the area.