Gregory Gull Jr., dressed as Santa, throws fresh snow in the air in Crested Butte, Colorado, on December 20, 2012. Over 32 inches of snow fell on the mountains during the past seven days. (AP Photo/Crested Butte Mountain Resort, Nathan Bilow)
Lucifer the lion holds a Christmas present in his mouth at ZSL London Zoo on December 12, 2012 in London, England. Keepers at the zoo gave the some of the animals Christmas presents containing festive treats. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images) #
In this combination of two images the interior of Salisbury Cathedral is illuminated by trails of candles carried by choristers during the annual "darkness to light" advent procession on December 1, 2012 in Salisbury, England. The service -- which begins with the medieval cathedral in total darkness and silence before the Advent Candle is lit at the West End -- is one of the most popular services of the liturgical year. The annual advent service, which takes place over three nights and is seen by several thousand people, is a mix of music and readings during which two great candlelit processions move around the different spaces in the 750-year-old building which, by the end, is illuminated by almost 1,300 candles. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images) #
Runners dressed in Santa Claus outfits compete in the Santa Dash in Liverpool, England, on December 2, 2012. Over 8,000 people were expected to compete in the annual event which is run over a 5km course. (Reuters/Phil Noble) #
A newly-decorated Christmas tree lit behind him, U.S. Army 1st Lt. Aaron Dunn hands his baby Emma to his wife Leanne, in their living room in Fountain, Colorado, one week after Dunn's return from a tour of duty in Afghanistan, on December 8, 2012. 1st Lt. Dunn had not seen his wife and baby since his unit deployed to the mountains of Afghanistan in February. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley) #
Workers collect orders at Amazon.com's fulfillment center in Rugeley, England, on December 11, 2012. (Reuters/Phil Noble) #
Visitors walk across the Capilano Suspension Bridge decorated in Christmas lights in North Vancouver, British Columbia, on December 10, 2012. Originally built in 1889, the bridge stretches 135 meters across and 70 meters above the Capilano River. (Reuters/Andy Clark) #
An actress dressed as the Christkind poses in a Deutsche Post retail outlet in Engelskirchen, Germany on December 20, 2012. Each year, the Christkind answers some 150,000 letters from around the world via Deutsche Post. (AP Photo/Sascha Schuermann) #
Eric Marshall sets up his Christmas lights on his house in Bagby, England, on December 17, 2012. Eric spends 3 weeks each year setting up the display which runs throughout December to the 12th night and raises funds for the local church. Eric has raised nearly £20,000 over the past 20 years when he started out with one Santa and sleigh. (Reuters/Nigel Roddis) #
Michael Sciaraffo, costumed as Santa Claus, makes a toy delivery to a home in the Bell Harbor neighborhood of New York, on December 18, 2012. Using Facebook, Sciaraffo started a charitable enterprise to collect and personally deliver toys to children affected by Superstorm Sandy, dressed as Santa. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews) #
A reindeer lines up outside 10 Downing Street as a party is hosted for sick children on December 17, 2012 in London, England.(Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images) #
A child reacts to a reveler dressed as a devil at the Old Town Square in Prague, on the eve of Saint Nicholas Day December 5, 2012. Revelers dressed as Saint Nicholas and a devil approached children on the streets as part of a tradition to determine if they had behaved well during the past year and depending on their answers, would receive presents, sweets or coal accordingly.(Reuters/David W Cerny) #
Cape penguins and an aquarium keeper dressed in Christmas themed costumes take part in a Christmas event at the Hakkeijima Sea Paradise aquarium in Yokohama, suburban Tokyo, on December 19, 2012. (Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images) #
People react to a snow machine as they gather to look at Christmas lights that adorn a house in Melksham, England, on December 8, 2012. The lights, a popular festive attraction, have returned to the town after a two-year absence and have raised thousands of pounds for charity for a local hospice, Dorothy House. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images) #
Adriana Leiss and her daughters Gabriella and Amelia replace burned out light bulbs on their 1965 Chevy pick-up truck decorated for Christmas at their house, on what is known as "Candy Cane Lane" in the Woodland Hills section of Los Angeles, on December 9, 2012.(AP Photo/Richard Vogel) #
The 80th Annual Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony in New York City, on November 28, 2012. (Reuters/Carlo Allegri) #
A visually impaired child performs during Christmas celebrations at Devnar School for the Blind in Hyderabad, India, on December 21, 2012.(AP Photo/Mahesh Kumar A) #
A 14-foot Christmas tree appears to be crashing through the roof of a one-story house in Seattle's Magnolia neighborhood, on December 20, 2012. Homeowner Patrick Kruger created the illusion of the tree crashing through the roof by cutting a 14-foot tree into two pieces and attaching the top six-foot section is to a piece of plywood that's bolted to the roof. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson) #
A worker cuts a "Spanbaum" Christmas figure at the "Erzgebirgische Volkskunst Richard Glaesser" factory in Seiffen, Germany, on November 28, 2012. For several decades the eastern German region of Erzgebirge has produced wooden folk art of smokers, nutcrackers and pyramids especially used as decoration during the Christmas season. (Reuters/Tobias Schwarz) #
Saint Nicholas is followed by his two assistants called "Zwarte Piet" (Black Pete) during a traditional parade in central Brussels, Belgium, on December 1, 2012. The Netherlands and Belgium are two countries that pride themselves on progressive laws and open societies, but critics say they are stuck in the dark ages when it comes to depictions of Santa Claus and his helpers. Saint Nicholas, or "Sinterklaas" in Dutch, brings presents to children on December 5 in the Netherlands and on December 6 in Belgium, and is always accompanied by at least one assistant dressed in 17th century costume who has a blackened face. (Reuters/Francois Lenoir) #
Croatians gather in front of a museum in Zagreb as they participate in an initiative by local artist Kresimir Tadija Kapulic to release Chinese sky lanterns with people's Christmas and New Year's wishes, on December 20, 2012. (AFP/Getty Images) #
A sun bear reaches for a Christmas present containing a treat, at Taronga Zoo in Sydney, Australia, on December 14, 2012.(Reuters/Daniel Munoz) #
Harry Jackson, 13, the head chorister at St Paul's Cathedral School sings Christmas carols inside the Cathedral in central London, on December 10, 2012. Christmas is a busy time of year for the choir who will sing to over 20,000 people over the season.(Reuters/Andrew Winning) #
A Christmas tree stands in front of the Al-Amin mosque in downtown Beirut, Lebanon, on December 18, 2012. (Reuters/Jamal Saidi) #
Valery Kokoulin, 47, dressed as Santa Claus, rings a bell on his self-made yacht to mark the ending of the sailboat season, as the air temperature dropped to minus 23 degrees of Celsius (minus 9.4 degrees Fahrenheit), on the Yenisei River, outside Russia's Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, on December 7, 2012. (Reuters/Ilya Naymushin) #
People do their Christmas shopping at the Vittorio Emanuele Gallery on December 20, 2012 in Milan, Italy.(Tiziana Fabi/AFP/Getty Images) #
Capitol Hill police check an unidentified man dressed as Santa Claus with a metal detector as he enters the U.S. Capitol on his way to Speaker of the House John Boehner's office in Washington, DC, on December 12, 2012. The man was working with the group Catholics United, and wanted to urge Speaker of the House John Boehner to pass pending "fiscal cliff" legislation before Christmas.(Win McNamee/Getty Images) #
Snow-covered San Gabriel mountains rise behind downtown Los Angeles, on December 19, 2012. (AP Photo/Nick Ut) #
Revellers dressed up in Santa outfits gather at Trafalgar Square in London during a Santacon festival parade through the streets of London, on December 15, 2012. (AP Photo/Sang Tan) #
Tourists and locals walk past a Santa Claus statue placed on a beach for a film shoot in the southern Indian city of Kochi, on December 10, 2012. (Reuters/Sivaram V) #
Christmas lights decorate the streets of Abidjan, Ivory Coast, on December 15, 2012, after the launch of the 2nd edition of "Abidjan Perle des Lumieres" (Abidjan perle of lights) for Christmas and New Year celebrations. (Sia Kambou/AFP/Getty Images) #
Window cleaners dressed as Santa Claus work during an event promoting Christmas at a hotel in the business district of Tokyo, on December 20, 2012. (Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon) #
A bundle carrying humanitarian supplies and gifts drifts to the ground off the shore of an island in Micronesia after C-130 Hercules crews from Yokota Air Base, Japan, flew them in for Operation Christmas Drop, an annual mission -- the longest-running U.S. Department of Defense mission in full operation, on December 18, 2012. The plane took off from Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, to airlift the donated bundles to islands in need. Donations come largely from local communities in Guam, and include everything from fishing nets and canned goods, to toys and games. (AP Photo/U.S. Air Force, Tech. Sgt. Samuel Morse) #
Icelandic philanthropist Einar Sveinsson, dressed as Santa Claus, speaks with a patient at the oncology ward during a visit to the Benjamin Bloom National Children Hospital, in San Salvador, on December 11, 2012. Sveinsson has visited the hospital prior to Christmas every year since 2001 to give gifts to the patients. (Jose Cabezas/AFP/Getty Images) #
Fireworks light the sky near a giant Christmas tree in Puerto Princesa city, Palawan, west of Manila, on December 1, 2012. The Philippines, a mainly Roman Catholic country, celebrates one of the longest Christmas holidays in the world, playing Christmas carols in shopping malls in September and putting up lanterns and fireworks early in December. (Reuters/Romeo Ranoco) #
A police officer dressed in a blue Santa Claus costume holds a sack and cane in the Macacos slum after arriving by police helicopter in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on December 20, 2012. The Pacifying Police Unit, or UPP, organized for Santa to visit the slum to hand out Christmas gifts to young residents. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana) #
Visitors to Capilano Park look out at the pointed peaks of The Lions covered in snow in North Vancouver, British Columbia, on December 14, 2012. (Reuters/Andy Clark) #
Children dressed as angels recreate an act from the Christmas Nativity Scene outside Saint Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church in Newtown, Connecticut, one day after a shooting at nearby Sandy Hook Elementary School, on December 15, 2012.(Reuters/Joshua Lott) #
An angel sits atop a Christmas tree in a growing makeshift memorial for the victims of the December 14 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 19, 2012. (Reuters/Mike Segar)
Sisters from the Franciscan order pray inside the Grotto at the Church of the Nativity in the biblical West Bank city of Bethlehem, believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, on December 24, 2012. Thousands of Palestinians and tourists were flocking to Bethlehem to mark Christmas at the site where many believe Jesus Christ was born. AFP PHOTO/MUSA AL-SHAER
A photograph taken during a royal visit to Bethlehem to prove the biblical city's existence will be going on display among photographs and diary extracts from a royal tour 150 years ago.
Queen Victoria's eldest son King Edward VII, then Prince of Wales, was sent on an educational trip to the Middle East in 1862, accompanied by Francis Bedford - the first photographer on a royal tour.
His previously unseen photos include a view of Bethlehem from the roof of the Church of the Nativity, said to be built on the spot where Jesus was born.
Unseen: Royal photographer Francis Bedford took this picture of Bethlehem 150 years ago while on a visit with the Prince of Wales
Exhibition: Francis Bedford's photo of The Shepherds' Field, where the Angel Gabriel appeared according to the Bible, taken on a royal visit to Bethlehem in 1862
Garden of Gethsemane, Jerusalem. Situated at the foot of the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, according to the gospels, Jesus and his disciples are said to have prayed there the night before he was arrested.
He also took a picture of the Shepherds' Field showing the area where the Angel Gabriel is said to have appeared to the shepherds. The photographs, which belong to the Royal Collection, will form part of a new exhibition Cairo to Constantinople: Early Photographs of the Middle East at The Queen's Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse, from March 8, 2013.
Curator Sophie Gordon said the purpose of taking the photograph from the Church of the Nativity was to show the Victorian audience that Bethlehem really existed and to add weight to the Christian tradition.
‘Bethlehem wasn't directly on the Prince's route - and so his party made a particular point of going there,’ she said.
Damascus, Syria, in ruins following the conflict of 1860, when very little was known about this part of the world at the time
The pyramids at Giza, Cairo, Egypt, part of the Cairo to Constantinople: Early Photographs of the Middle East collection
Previously unseen: The Prince of Wales and his party among ruins in Karnak, Thebes in Egypt. Dr Gordon added: ‘Very little was known about this part of the world at the time, and what information they did have was largely based on knowledge of the Bible." In the early 1860s, photography was still in its infancy and had only been introduced to the public in 1839. ‘Bedford's camera would have been quite large to accommodate a 10 x 12in glass plate negative,' Dr Gordon added. ‘He must have had porters to carry all his equipment, as the entire photographic process had to be done on the spot.
Royal trip: The photographs were taken during the future King Edward VII's first royal tour to the Middle East whilst he was still the Prince of Wales,left, and right: a diary entry by King Edward VII
Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem. It is thought the royal photographer must have had porters to carry all his equipment, as the entire photographic process had to be done on the spot
‘Just before he took the photograph, Bedford would have coated and sensitised the plate, because the plate had to go in the camera when it was still wet.
‘He would have then developed and fixed the image, while excluding all light, and washed the plate. To carry out this process, Bedford would have constructed a temporary dark room, perhaps on the church roof.'
The then Prince of Wales described the party's visit to Bethlehem in his diary entry for April 3, 1862, describing how ‘our tents were struck at 8.30am and we started at that time (on horseback of course) for Bethlehem, which we reached in about a couple of hours time, stopping on the way at Rachel's tomb, and it was ascertained for certain that the tomb is on the site of the real one’.
Temple of Jupiter, Baalbek, Lebanon, was also part of the heir to the throne's four-month trip
Gateway to the Luxor temple, Egypt in the early 1860s. Photography was only introduced to the public in 1839
Abd al-Qadir, an Algerian Islamic scholar, Sufi, political and military leader who led a struggle against the French colonial invasion in the mid-19th century . He recalls how they had 'some splendid refreshment' and how they saw a 'fine view' on the top of the church. On April 18, 1862, when the party encountered poor weather ahead of a ride to Nazareth, he wrote: ‘Early in the morning it blew a regular hurricane and poured with rain and all our tents were in gt. jeopardy.'
The heir to the throne's four-month trip to the Middle East was designed to increase his understanding of the area at a time when the Ottoman Empire was disintegrating and Britain needed to secure the route to India. The church standing where Jesus is believed to have been born could become the Palestinian Territory's first World Heritage site, it was revealed today.
Bethlehem's venerated Church of the Nativity has been nominated for the honour before a UNESCO meeting later this month. The nomination, which includes the church and surrounding route taken by religious pilgrims, is the Palestinians' first bid for inclusion on the prestigious list.
Venerated: Christians march at Manger Square outside the Church of the Nativity in the Biblical town of Bethlehem. Sites included are deemed as holding 'outstanding universal value' as part of the world's shared heritage.
It comes after Palestinian membership to UNESCO, the United Nations' heritage body, was granted in October 2011, when UNESCO's general assembly voted by 107-14 to accept the Palestinians. UNESCO stands for United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation and is a sub-agency to the United Nations. Its purpose is 'to contribute to the building of peace, the eradication of poverty, sustainable development and intercultural dialogue through education, the sciences, culture, communication and information' and is most famous for its list of World Heritage sites.
UNESCO has 195 full members and 8 associate members. Bulgarian politician Irina Bokova has been the organisation's Director-General since 2009.
There are 936 World Heritage sites, the list include both man-made and natural wonders such as Stonehenge and Tower of London, The Grand Canyon, Notre Dame Cathedral, Machu Picchu and The Pyramids of Giza. The vote proved controversial with the U.S., which holds the view that a peace deal must be reached with Israel before the Palestinian Territories can be granted full membership of international organisations.
The U.S. and Israel's subsequent funding cut to the body saw UNESCO lose more than a fifth of its revenues. Bethlehem, situated in the West Bank, about five miles south of Jerusalem, is considered the Palestinian Territories' top visitor destination partly due to the religious significance of the church.
One of the oldest surviving Christian churches in the world, it drew two million visitors last year, according to Nada Atrash, an architect and head of the research and training unit at Bethlehem's Center for Cultural Heritage Preservation, which has been lobbying for the site's inscription as a World Heritage destination. She told CNN the centre considered Bethlehem's inclusion on the list 'as a Palestinian dream, and as a reward of 11 years of work in the field of preserving the cultural and natural heritage in Palestine'. Visitor numbers have hit record highs in recent years, but, according to a report into developing tourism in the town, Bethlehem has yet to properly capitalise on its potential. The majority of the visitors were day trippers on short visits, meaning the full economic benefits of tourism did not flow into the town. Atrash said it was hoped that gaining World Heritage status would help efforts to boost Bethlehem's appeal as a destination and keep visitors in the town for longer than a visit to the church. 'We are mainly seeking to extend the stay of the visitors, who usually drop (in) to Bethlehem for few hours to visit the church and leave without visiting the town,' she said. 'We hope that this inscription would contribute to both the promotion of the site and its protection.'
Holy site: Greek Orthodox Patriarch of the Holy Land Eireneos I conducts midnight mass in the crypt under the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem
Palestinian Christian girls walk through the sunlit Church of the Nativity, the traditional birthplace of Jesus. The condition of the church, which has suffered extensive earthquake damage in its history, has been of concern.
A Christian pilgrim touches an icon of the Virgin Mary inside the Church of the Nativity. One of the issues is that responsibility for its administration is shared between three religious authorities -- the Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Roman Catholic churches. On occasion, tensions between the groups have spilled over into violence; in December, about 100 Greek Orthodox and Armenian clerics fought with brooms when a tussle broke out while cleaning the church. One of Christianity's most holy places, the site's focal point is the Grotto of the Nativity, a rectangular cavern beneath the church that has been considered the site of Christ's birth since at least the 2nd century. A 14-pointed silver star set into the marble floor marks the precise spot where Jesus is said to have been born.
In the 4th century, Emperor Constantine founded a church on the site, which was destroyed in the year 529, only to be replaced by larger structures, which form the basis of the church today. UNESCO's World Heritage Committee will consider the Church of the Nativity among 36 sites nominated for inclusion on the list at its next meeting, to be held from June 24 to July 6, in St Petersburg, Russia.
Tis the season when we celebrate a baby and his mother. Nutty vicars may tell us we can't sing O Little Town Of Bethlehem because it's no longer relevant to life in Jesus's birthplace, but the Madonna and Child remains one of the most moving images ever created. Mary cradling her newborn son is the logo of love without end. You need faith to believe in Christ, but anyone can place hope in the power of a mother's love.
Madonna and Child, the logo of love between a mother and child. Right Photo, Stable where he was born, a simple silver star set in marble marks the spot where Jesus was born. The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is one of the oldest continuously operating churches in the world. The structure is built over the cave that tradition marks as the birthplace of Christ, and it is considered sacred by followers of both Christianity and Islam (see Islamic View of Jesus). The antiquity of this tradition is attested by the Christian apologist Justin Martyr (c. 100 - 165), who noted in his Dialogue with Trypho that the Holy Family had taken refuge in a cave outside of town. Origen of Alexandria (185 AD–ca. 254) wrote: In Bethlehem the cave is pointed out where He was born, and the manger in the cave where He was wrapped in swaddling clothes. And the rumor is in those places, and among foreigners of the Faith, that indeed Jesus was born in this cave
The traditional birthplace of Jesus celebrated its merriest Christmas in years as tens of thousands of tourists descended on Bethlehem. Officials said the turnout was shaping up to be the largest since 2000. Unseasonably mild weather, a virtual halt in Israeli-Palestinian violence and a burgeoning economic revival in the West Bank all added to the cheer. By nightfall a packed Manger Square was awash in red, blue, green and yellow Christmas lights. Merrymakers blasted horns, bands sang traditional Christmas carols in Arabic, Boy Scout marching bands performed and Palestinian policemen deployed around the town to keep the peace.
Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad Twal carries the statuette of baby Jesus during the midnight Mass ceremony which marks the beginning of Christmas Day at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem
A nun takes communion from Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fuad Twal during the midnight mass ceremony which marks the beginning of Christmas Day
A group of 30 tourists from Papua New Guinea wearing red Santa hats walked around the nearby Church of the Nativity, built on the site where tradition holds Jesus was born. Both church officials and the Palestinian president voiced hopes for peace. Bethlehem used to attract tens of thousands of tourists from around the world for Christmas celebrations, but attendance dropped sharply following the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising in 2000. As the fighting tapered off over the last five years, attendance steadily climbed. The town's 2,750 hotel rooms were booked solid for Christmas week, and town chiefs say more hotels are being built.
Israeli officials said they expected about 90,000 visitors in Bethlehem during the current two-week holiday season, up from 70,000 last year. But the bloodshed has left its mark. Visitors entering the town must cross through a massive metal gate in the separation barrier Israel built between Jerusalem and Bethlehem during a wave of Palestinian attacks last decade.
Christian pilgrims pray in the Church of the Nativity, the site revered as the birthplace of Jesus, in Bethlehem
A Christian pilgrim arrives at the Church of the Nativity last night. The Roman Catholic Church's top clergyman in the Holy Land, Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal, crossed through the gate in a traditional midday procession from Jerusalem. Later he celebrated Midnight Mass, the peak of the Christmas events.
In his homily, he issued a conciliatory call for peace between religions and urged an 'intensification' of dialogue with Jews and Muslims. 'We need to unite and integrate the many values we have in common: prayer, piety, fasting, almsgiving, and ethical values,' he said. 'Our hope for Christmas is that Jerusalem not only become the capital of two nations, but also a model for the world, of harmony and coexistence of the three monotheistic religions. 'During this Christmas season, may the sound of the bells of our churches drown the noise of weapons in our wounded Middle East, calling all men to peace and the joy.' The crowds continued to swell throughout the day and by last night, Israeli military officials, who co-ordinate movement in and out of the West Bank, said the number rose to around 70,000 people, compared with 50,000 last year.
Raed Arafat, the 40-year-old owner of the Stars and Bucks Cafe, played Christmas songs over loudspeakers and handed out free Arabic coffee at his shop near Manger Square. Tourists took photos and bought mugs emblazoned with the cafe chain's green logo, modelled after the American Starbucks company.
A Palestinian policeman stands guard at a roof watching the celebrations at the square of the Church of the Nativity, where Christians believe the Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus Christ
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas (L) attends the midnight mass ceremony which marks the beginning of Christmas Day
The holiday had its surreal moments. Many visitors were local Palestinians, including a large number of Muslim women whose faces were covered by veils. The loud Muslim call to prayer from a mosque next to Manger Square briefly drowned out the celebrations.
'Because of the hard situation and the pressure we are living in, we take advantage of any joyful moment and bring our children to play,' said Khitam Harazallah, a housewife from the nearby Deheishe refugee camp who came with her two young children.
Today, just one-third of Bethlehem's 50,000 residents are Christian, down from about 75% in the 1950s. The rest are Muslims.
The Christian population throughout the Middle East has shrunk in recent decades as people flee violence or search for better opportunities abroad. Christians make up roughly 2% of the population in the Holy Land.
With the end of fighting, the West Bank has undergone an economic revival in recent years, illustrated by new shopping malls and widespread construction projects in the bustling city of Ramallah.
A priest blesses the statue of the baby Jesus inside in the grotto which marks the spot where Christians believe Christ was born
But a deadlock in Middle East peace talks between Israel and the West Bank government of Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, along with a flare-up in violence between Israel and militants in the Gaza Strip, threatened to cast a pall over the celebrations.
Mr Abbas, a Muslim, travelled to Bethlehem to greet revellers, saying he hoped the coming year would finally bring peace.
'We are seekers of peace in the path of Jesus,' he said. 'We hope that next year will be a year of peace by establishing the independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, living side by side with Israel in peace and security.'
Israel maintains an embargo on Gaza, which is governed by Mr Abbas' rival, the Islamic militant group Hamas. In a goodwill gesture, Israel allowed 500 members of Gaza's tiny Christian community to travel to Bethlehem.
Niveen Wadia, a 40-year-old Gaza woman, said coming to Bethlehem was 'a very beautiful feeling.'
'In Gaza we don't have any celebration atmosphere. We are the minority there,' she said.
An extraordinary brawl between clergymen broke out yesterday at the very site where Jesus is said to have been born.
The annual cleaning of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem descended into a battle between the rival Christian denominations that share it.
Brooms, fists and vicious insults flew in all directions between 100 priests and monks dressed in their traditional robes.
Clash: Riot police are forced to defend themselves from broom-wielding holy men at the traditionally accepted birthplace of Jesus Christ, in the West Bank town of Bethlehem
FIST FIGHTS ON HOLY GROUND: A TURBULENT HISTORY DATING BACK CENTURIES
The Church of Nativity is a basilica built over the grotto where it is believed that the Virgin Mary gave birth to the baby Jesus.
In 333 A.D. the Emperor Constantine completed the basilica, which still attracts thousands of pilgrims from around the world every year. Although it was destroyed during a Samaritan riot in 529 A.D. it was rebuilt and reconfigured under Emperor Justinian. After the Holy Land was taken over by Muslims in the 7th Century, the Muslim caliph guaranteed the integrity of the church to the Byzantines. This meant the building survived a Persian invasion in 614 and an order by the Fatamid caliph in 1000 to destroy all Christian shrines.
Crusaders took over the church without a fight when Jerusalem was captured away from the Muslims in 1099. After this Franciscan monks backed by the Pope took over the church, creating a rivalry that lasted for centuries between them and the Greek Orthodox church, which can trace its early origins back to the 2nd Century, who were the successors of the Byzantine, over who would control of the church. The Church of Nativity has now been divided into Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Armenian sections for several centuries. Each group is very possessive about the parts of the church and objects under its control. Decisions about who takes care of what is based on Ottoman Empire status system, dating back to 1299, which mandates that things be done as they have always been.
The fight ended only after Palestinian police, bending their heads to squeeze through the church’s low ‘door of humility’, rushed in with batons to restore order. The row is believed to have begun after a clergyman of one order – either Greek Orthodox or Armenian Apostolic – accidentally pushed his broom into space ‘controlled’ by the other group. Conflict is easily sparked by any perceived encroachment of jurisdictional boundaries within the church, where control is split between the two denominations along with Roman Catholics. All three groups were cleaning the church for annual Orthodox Christmas celebrations, which will be held next week.
Palestinian police lieutenant-colonel Khaled al-Tamimi tried to play down the incident, saying there had been a ‘trivial problem’.
He added: ‘Everything is all right and things have returned to normal. No one was arrested because all those involved were men of God.’ The 6th century church is the oldest in the Holy Land and a very fragile status quo governs relations among the three denominations. To repair or clean a part of the structure is to own it, according to accepted practice. That means that letting other sects clean part of the church could allow one to gain ground at another’s expense. Tensions between rival clergy at the church have been a fact of life for centuries and the site has often been caught up in international politics. In the 19th century, tensions over the church – and the wider issue of Orthodox Christians in Ottoman lands – was a factor in the outbreak of the Crimean War. Although the roof has needed urgent work for decades, and leaking rainwater has ruined much of the priceless artwork inside, renovation has been delayed for years by disagreements among the denominations over who would foot the bill.
'Guarding their denominational turf': Clerics were said to be defending their areas of the Church when the 100-strong scuffle broke out
Skirmish: A member from the Armenian clergy raises his arms as Palestinian police officers try to restore order at the Church of Nativity. Officials hope work will begin next year under a deal brokered by the Palestinian Authority. In the annual clean-up session, the entire church is swept, dusted and cleaned with kerosene to remove the grime of the past 12 months in preparation for the onslaught of more pilgrims, clergy and tourists. Several hundred clergy take part with help from worshippers. In the 1980s, monks battled each other with chains and broomsticks over who had the right to clean a particular section of wall and beams.
Keep back: The clashing denominations each control sections of the church and fiercely guard their turf, which spilled over into violence in the holy building. At one point a ladder was yanked out from under a cleric, who was working 16ft overhead. A fight over the dusting of chandeliers at Christmas 2006 landed several men in the hospital after the Greek Orthodox contingent placed a ladder in Armenian territory. Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is built on the traditional site of the crucifixion, has seen similar incidents.
Peace restored: Palestinian special forces watch as Greek Orthodox and Armenian clergy perform the annual cleaning of the church
This is what they should have been doing: Greek Orthodox clean the floor of the Church of Nativity after the brawl . They are one of the most recognised symbols of the festive season, emulated in nativity plays all over the world and whose imagery adorns the front of millions of Christmas cards. However the three wise men who presented the newborn baby Jesus with gold, frankincense and myrrh could have been larger in numbers if a new interpretation of an ancient document is correct. An eighth-century script has been translated into English for the first time and throws an incredible new light on the Christmas story.
Nativity scene: The imagery of the three wise men has been recreated on Christmas cards all over the world. The translation of the mysterious 'Revelation of the Magi' describes how the three wise men actually numbered over a dozen and came from a faraway land, possibly China. The Magi was the term, used from at least the fourth century BC, for ancient stargazers who were able to read and manipulate the fate foretold in the skies. The script also reveals how it was Jesus himself who was the famous star followed by the Magi. Brent Landau, a Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Oklahoma, spent two years translating the eighth-century text from its original Syriac. The document has been held in the Vatican for 250 years and the story is thought to have been first told in the late second, or early third, century.
This takes it back to possibly just 100 years after Matthew wrote his Gospel - the only one to include the story of the Magi. Matthew never mentions how many the Magi numbered; they are described as three wise men simply because there were three gifts.
You might need a bigger cast: The latest revelation could change the face of nativity school plays across the world (file photo) There could have been several scores of them, according to the new translation.
The authors of the document claim it was penned by the Magi. However experts do not believe this to be the case and say it could have been written by their descendents, as it carries detailed accounts of their prayers and rituals. Professor Landau thinks the sect that wrote it identified with the mystics. The story tells how the Magi were descended from Adam’s third and righteous son, Seth. It says they came from a semi-mythical place called Shir, which is on the eastern edge of the world - where modern-day China is. Prof Landau said: 'The story says that Seth passed down a prophecy that at some point a star would appear that would signal the birth of God in human form. 'The Magi waited thousands of years, passing down the prophecy and then the star appeared where the Magi were. 'It transformed into a small luminous human being who was Christ himself in a pre-existent, celestial form.
New light: The document has been held in the Vatican (pictured) for 250 years and the story is thought to have been first told in the late second or early third century. 'It is saying that Jesus Christ and the Star of Bethlehem are the same thing and Jesus Christ can transform himself into anything. 'The star guides them to Bethlehem and into a cave where it transforms into a human infant who tells them to go back and be preachers of the Gospel. 'Later the Apostle Thomas turns up and baptises the Magi and tells them to go into the world.
Timeline of an Ancient Text
2nd/3rd century: Original story written
8th century: Current manuscript produced
- For a millennium, it is unclear where the text was -
18th century: a collector finds the manuscript - written on a parchment made from animal skin- in a Turkish monastery
It was given it to the Vatican library and archived away into obscurity 1927: The Vatican publishes the text into Syriac (a dialect of Aramaic used by Christians in the Middle East ) but it is again overlooked and forgotten
2000s: Harvard Divinity School scholar Brent Landau finds the document and spends seven years translating the text from Syriac to English
'The story does say that the Magi brought gifts to Jesus, but interestingly the text never tells us if they are the familiar gold, frankincense, and myrrh.' Prof Landau said it is unknown who wrote the text but added: 'Somebody was really fascinated by the wise men to have created this big, long story and tell it from their perspective. 'The Revelation of the Magi is part of the Christian Apocrypha and was written in the Syriac language that was spoken by Christians from Syria through Iran and Iraq. 'There might have been a community who were using the Magi or its persona to get its religious perspective across.
'There are many details of strange rituals, praying and silence. There is a description of a sacred mountain and purification at a sacred spring. 'The detail is so great I wondered if it was the community’s actual practices that were being described.
'There is much in the Revelation of the Magi which is not self evident why it is there. 'Nobody knows where Matthew got the story from so along with Matthew’s Gospel this is as close as you can get to the Magi.' In terms of the text itself, very little is known about its origins. It is unclear who wrote it or when, though academics think it is an 8th century manuscript written from a story from the second or third century. After, it is unsure where the text was for a millennium until a collector stumbled across it in a Turkish monastery in the eighteenth century. The collector then transferred the document, written on Vellum, a type of parchment made from animal skin, to the Vatican Library. It was then lost, archived away in Syriac until a Harvard student, Brent Landau, spent almost a decade translating the text.
Stable where he was born, a simple silver star set in marble marks the spot where Jesus was born. The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is one of the oldest continuously operating churches in the world. The structure is built over the cave that tradition marks as the birthplace of Christ, and it is considered sacred by followers of both Christianity and Islam (see Islamic View of Jesus). The antiquity of this tradition is attested by the Christian apologist Justin Martyr (c. 100 - 165), who noted in his Dialogue with Trypho that the Holy Family had taken refuge in a cave outside of town. Origen of Alexandria (185 AD–ca. 254) wrote: In Bethlehem the cave is pointed out where He was born, and the manger in the cave where He was wrapped in swaddling clothes. And the rumor is in those places, and among foreigners of the Faith, that indeed Jesus was born in this cave.
A cross is seen back dropped by the Church of Nativity, traditionally believed by Christians to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, during a Christmas parade in the West Bank town of Bethlehem on Friday, Dec. 24, 2010. Thousands of tourists, pilgrims and clergy converged on Bethlehem on Friday as the town of Jesus' birth prepared to celebrate Christmas Eve. Church of Nativity inside Palestinian Authority. The Church of the Nativity in the heart of Bethlehem marks one of Christianity's most sacred sites - the birthplace of Christ. Situated on Manger Square 8 kilometres (5 miles) from Jerusalem, the church is built over a grotto where the Virgin Mary is said to have given birth to Jesus. The church's large fortress-like exterior stands as a testament to its turbulent history. For centuries, it was one of the most fought over holy places. It was seized and defended by a succession of armies - including Muslim and Crusader forces. It is controlled jointly by three Christian denominations - the Armenian Church, the Roman Catholic Church and the Greek Orthodox Church.
A nun prays at the Church of the Nativity, believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, in the West Bank town of Bethlehem on December 24, 2010 as the Holy Land prepares to mark Christmas. (MUSA AL-SHAER/AFP/Getty Images) #
One year old twins Declan, left and Dylan, right, Keefe lasted about 5 seconds on Santa's lap before mom Maria Keefe had to come get them. Parents Maria and Chris, not shown, waited almost 2 hours in line to see Santa at Flatirons Mall in Broomfield, Colorado. Santa, aka Robert Ferguson, has been Santa for over 7 years. Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post #
Snow covers the medieval Graslei, in Ghent, Belgium, Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2010. (AP Photo/Yves Logghe) #
Choristers - aged between 10 and 13 - proceed from the nearby King's College School to the chapel at King's College, Cambridge, Thursday Dec. 23, 2010, to take part in final rehearsals for the annual Christmas Eve Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. Enthusiasts camped on an icy pavement to be sure of a place in the congregation at the annual festival - first staged in 1910 - which attracts fans from around the world and is broadcast to millions by the BBC. (AP Photo/Sean Dempsey) #
This photo taken Thursday, Dec. 23, 2010, a horse cart passing by an illuminated Church in Ahmadabad, India. (AP Photo/Ajit Solanki) #
US specialist Charlie Labonte from Apache Troop 1-75 Cavalry 2nd Brigade 101st Airborne Division, seen wearing a Santa hat, walks past tents at Sabloghay camp in Zari district of Kandahar province on December 22, 2010. (BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images) #
One of the high points of the winter sleigh ride is roasting marshmallows on an open fire. From left to right are William Orange with his daughter Valerie, Jim Posever holding his 3 year old daughter Elise, Krista Gililland, in purple, Lisa Posever holding son Kai, 18 months and Chole Wolz, 9. The Orange's are from Round Rock, Texas and the Posever's are from Lakewood, Colorado. Hot Cocoa sleigh rides, marshmallows, lots of snow, Christmas carols and big beautiful draft horses are all part of the sleigh rides offered by Sombrero Stables at Snow Mountain Ranch just outside of Tabernash near Granby, Colorado. The stables, run by ranch manager Brian Buchanan, have a total of 15 draft horses including Belgians and Percherons. They offer daily hot cocoa sleigh rides as well as a dinner sleigh ride through out the season. Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post. #
Indonesian Christians hold candles as they pray during a Christmas eve mass at a cathedral in Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia on Friday, Dec. 24, 2010. (AP Photo/Firdia Lisnawati) #
A girl gestures to ask a boy to keep silent during a Christmas Eve Mass at the official Catholic church South Cathedral in Beijing, China, Friday, Dec. 24, 2010. (AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan) #
Chinese worshippers walk in front of a Catholic church after the Christmas Eve mass in Beijing on December 24, 2010. The Vatican and China have not had formal diplomatic ties since 1951, when the Holy See angered Mao Zedong's Communist government by recognizing the Nationalist Chinese regime as the legitimate government of China. (LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images) #
A young girl dressed as an angel attends the Christmas Eve mass at a Catholic church in Beijing on December 24, 2010. The Vatican and China have not had formal diplomatic ties since 1951, when the Holy See angered Mao Zedong's Communist government by recognizing the Nationalist Chinese regime as the legitimate government of China. (LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images) #
A Christmas tree which has been decked out with $11 million (euro8.3 million) worth of gold and precious stones, stands at the lobby of the Emirates Palace hotel, in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on Thursday, Dec. 16, 2010. The hotel's general manager, Hans Olbertz, was quoted in local newspapers Thursday as saying the 43-foot (13-meter) faux fir has 131 ornaments that include gold and precious stones including diamonds and sapphires. The $11 million symbol of the season has become the latest extravagance at the Emirates Palace hotel, which boasts its own marina, heliport and a vending machine that pops out small gold bars. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla) #
Cara Cooper, waits offstage while Clara and the Nutcracker Prince, Asuka Sasaki and Christopher Ellis, dance in a production of The Nutcracker by the Colorado Ballet, Tuesday December 21, 2010.(Craig F. Walker/ The Denver Post) #
A full moon rises behind a Christmas tree made of lights mounted on the roof of a hotel-casino in downtown Reno, Nev. early in the evening on Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2010. (AP Photo/Reno Gazette-Journal, David B. Parker) #
The former tower of the city wall is decorated as a candle in Zell an der Mosel, Germany, Thursday, Dec. 23, 2010. (AP Photo/dapd, Harald Tittel) #
Christmas shoppers make their way through a shopping mall in the western German city of Oberhausen on December 22, 2010. German retailers believe the crucial Christmas season could be the best for years, a retail body said, with sales expected to rise by 2.5 percent in Europe's top economy. (ROLAND WEIHRAUCH/AFP/Getty Images) #
This photo taken Thursday, Dec. 23, 2010, an Indian cyclist rides past an illuminated Church in Ahmadabad, India. (AP Photo/Ajit Solanki) #
Children wearing Santa hats light candles at the Sacred Heart Cathedral on Christmas Eve in New Delhi, India, Friday, Dec. 24, 2010. Christians in India make up just over 2 percent of its one billion population. (AP Photo/Saurabh Das) #
A man adjusts lights reading Merry Christmas at St Paul's church in Amritsar on December 24, 2010. Despite Christians comprising a little over two percent of the billion plus population in India, with Hindus comprising the majority, Christmas is celebrated with much fanfare and zeal throughout the country. (NARINDER NANU/AFP/Getty Images) #
Indonesian Christians attend the Christmas Eve mass at a church in Jakarta on December 24, 2010. (ADEK BERRY/AFP/Getty Images) #
The 'Lights of Christmas' are featured at St Mary's Cathedral on December 17, 2010 in Sydney, Australia. Sydney celebrates Christmas with dazzling light projections on city landmarks such as St. Mary's Cathedral, Town Hall and the Hyde Park Barracks Museum. (Photo by Jeremy Ng/Getty Images) #
Members of a Palestinian Christian band rest on the side of the road after performing in a Christmas parade, in the West Bank town of Bethlehem on Friday, Dec. 24, 2010. Thousands of tourists, pilgrims and clergy converged on Bethlehem on Friday as the town of Jesus' birth prepared to celebrate Christmas Eve. (AP Photo/Tara Todras-Whitehill) #
People dressed as Santa Claus pack the bar at Stitch, a lounge in New York's fashion district, during SantaCon on Dec. 11, 2010. The annual combination Christmas gathering and pub crawl is billed as a "nonsensical" event by its organizers. (Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times) #
A Pakistani Christian couple arrive in Catholic church decorated with festive lights in preparation for Christmas in Peshawar, Pakistan on Friday, Dec. 24, 2010. (AP Photo/Mohammad Sajjad) #
Tabitha Gray, 9, of Blackhawk, Colorado, makes sure to whisper in Santa's ear what she wants for Christmas so as not to be heard by others. Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post #
A Pakistani man and a woman ride a mototcycle in an alley of a Christian neighborhood decorated with lights on Christmas eve in Islamabad, Pakistan, Friday, Dec. 24, 2010. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen) #
Driver/wrangler Sarah Hubbell-Engler drives Lady and Sadie, two Percherons through the snow during a sleigh ride. Smiling in the back is David Lazzaro who came to Colorado from Austin, Texas with his family to visit his grandparents for the Christmas holiday at Snow Mountain Ranch near Granby, Colorado. Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post. #
Pope Benedict XVI receives the Roman Curia for the annual Christmas greetings at the Clementina Hall on December 20, 2010 in Vatican City, Vatican. (Photo by Eric Vandeville-Pool/Getty Images) #
A sandsculptor prepares a Santa Claus sandcastle at Durban's North Beach on December 23, 2010. (RAJESH JANTILAL/AFP/Getty Images) #
An elephant dressed in a Santa Claus costume gives out gifts to students to mark the Christmas season at a school in Ayutthaya province on December 24, 2010. The event was held as part of a campaign to promote Christmas in Thailand. (PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL/AFP/Getty Images)#
A Santa Claus hat is seen on a stand for body armour amid tents of US soldiers at Sabloghay camp in Zari district of Kandahar province on December 22, 2010. (BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images) #
Snow covers the rooftops of buildings in central London, on December 20, 2010. Thousands of stranded travellers faced a nervy battle to get home for Christmas as snow and ice caused chaos at European airports Monday. International hubs London, Paris, Frankfurt, Amsterdam and Brussels struggled to clear a backlog of passengers stranded over the weekend as holidaymakers tried to reach their destinations on time for December 25. (CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images) #
In this Dec. 22, 2010 photo, Maura Webster of Marlborough, Mass., tries to catch a snowflake on her tongue while carrying her daughter Emma, 4, after Christmas shopping at Shopper's World in Framingham, Mass. (AP photo/The Boston Globe/Bill Greene)