BETHLEHEM, West Bank, (Reuters) – Calls for peace resonated in Bethlehem on Sunday as a lull in violence spurred the biggest influx of Christmas pilgrims in years to the town where Christians believe Jesus was born.
Both Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said in messages they were committed to peacemaking in 2006. In Rome, Pope Benedict offered a special prayer for peace in the Holy Land.
In Bethlehem, an intermittent battleground in a five-year old Palestinian uprising, Vatican envoy Michel Sabbah said there was a real opportunity to grasp, with both Israelis and Palestinians due to hold elections early next year.
"A new Israeli and Palestinian political landscape is taking shape," said Sabbah, a Palestinian and Latin Patriarch.
"Leaving all violence, all vengeance, freeing political prisoners and putting the past behind can create a new land in which we can assure security for Israelis … and give Palestinians liberty and an end to occupation," he said.
Taking advantage of a truce that Palestinian militants have said they will follow to the end of the year, thousands of pilgrims and tourists came to Bethlehem.
Struggling with umbrellas against gusts of icy, pelting rain, they dashed from tour buses to the candle-lit warmth of the grotto in the Church of the Nativity, revered by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus.
"This is where the whole story began," said Giovanni Sacchini, 41, a banker from Milan. "I feel very safe here."
Bethlehem is dependent on tourism and the town”s mayor said he was expecting 30,000 visitors on Saturday and Sunday, far more than any year since a Palestinian uprising began in 2000.
"We hope that the Palestinians and Israelis will have peace and the whole world is waiting for this," said Yves Chaleon, a 62-year-old engineer from Paris.
Israel”s army has eased restrictions to allow foreigners as well as Israeli and Palestinian Christians from the West Bank and Gaza to visit the town.
But for the first time, pilgrims taking the road from Jerusalem have to pass through an iron gateway in an eight metre (26 foot) high concrete wall since Israeli completed a section of its West Bank barrier outside Bethlehem.
Israel erected the barrier with the avowed aim of stopping Palestinian suicide bombers. But it has been condemned internationally and Palestinians say it is a land grab that denies them a viable state.
"In our bitter and painful reality, we use this spiritual and religious occasion to send a message of peace to our Israeli neighbours," said Abbas in his Christmas message. He is a Muslim, as are most Palestinians.
Sharon”s office said the prime minister also wanted to push for peace. He is standing for re-election in March on a platform of ending conflict with the Palestinians, though they suspect he means to dictate terms.
"We all need (peace) and I intend to make every effort to achieve it," Sharon told Christian leaders.
Although both sides have long said they want peace, there is no sign of early talks. While Bethlehem has escaped violence, bloodshed elsewhere has dimmed hopes that Israel”s withdrawal from the occupied Gaza Strip this year can spur peacemaking.
Ushering in his first Christmas as pontiff, Pope Benedict, who has been invited to visit both Israel and Palestinian Territories, made a special appeal for peace in the Holy Land.
"Look, O Lord, upon this corner of the earth, your homeland, which is so very dear to you! Let your light shine upon it! Let it know peace!"