BETHLEHEM, West Bank - Thousands of pilgrims from around the world descended yesterday on the traditional birthplace of Jesus, greeted by choruses, scout troops, and rock bands for the most upbeat Christmas celebrations this Palestinian town has seen in years.
But the Holy Land's top Roman Catholic clergyman reminded followers that peace there remains elusive, while the threat of sectarian violence in the Islamic world and the lava spilling from a volcano in the Philippines clouded the celebrations for some other Christian communities across the globe.
Residents of Bethlehem, hemmed in by an Israeli security barrier and still recovering from years of violence, celebrated their town's annual day in the spotlight along with pilgrims and tourists.
Visitors milled around Manger Square, mingling with clergymen, camera crews, and locals hawking food and trinkets.
Christmas in Bethlehem has its incongruous elements - the troops of Palestinian boy scouts who wear kilts and play bagpipes in one of the town's holiday traditions, for example, or the inflatable Santa Clauses hanging from church pillars and storefronts looking out of place and overdressed in this Middle Eastern town with not a snowflake in sight.
Hanna Pioli, 23, and her sister Katherine, 25, were spending the holiday far from their hometown of Salt Lake City, Utah.
The sisters miss celebrating a "white Christmas" at home and were taken aback by the warm weather, Katherine Pioli said, but still thought Bethlehem was the best place for Christians to spend this day.
But the Holy Land's top Roman Catholic cleric, Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal, reminded listeners in a holiday address that peace remains out of reach.
"The wish that we most want, we most hope for, is not coming. We want peace," Twal said after he passed into Bethlehem in a traditional holiday procession from nearby Jerusalem.
Twal and his convoy of dozens of vehicles entered Palestinian-controlled territory through a massive steel gate in Israel's heavily guarded West Bank barrier, escorted by Israeli soldiers and police in jeeps.
The barrier and the heavy Israeli security presence served as reminders of the friction and hostilities that have thwarted peace efforts.
Some Christians in other far-flung parts of the world also saw gloom edge out the holiday cheer.
Baghdad's small remaining Christian minority was to celebrate midnight Mass in daylight for security reasons, and churches were under heavy guard. A bombing this week targeting a 1,200-year-old church in Mosul killed two passersby, underscoring Iraqi Christians' concerns.
In Baghdad, a marble palace once occupied by Saddam Hussein housed an impromptu Christmas celebration for U.S. soldiers and others far from home.
"I have mixed emotions," said Lt. Col Timothy Bedsole, 52, an Army chaplain from Alabama who was marking his second Christmas in Iraq since the 2003 invasion. "It's a very happy time for us as Christians and a very sad time to be away from our families."
Few were celebrating at a tent camp 220 miles southwest of Islamabad, Pakistan, erected to house Christians left homeless by a rampage of looting and arson by Muslims in August.
The Christians say they have received cell phone text messages warning them to expect a "special Christmas present." They're terrified their tents will be torched or their church services bombed.
Far to the east, in the shadow of the erupting Mayon volcano in the Philippines, thousands of families were spending Christmas Eve in shelters as the volcano belched out 20 gray ash columns yesterday, some of them a mile high.
Gunmen killed a Jewish settler in the West Bank yesterday as local attention was focused on Christmas celebrations in nearby Bethlehem.
A little-known Palestinian militant group identifying itself as a faction of President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement claimed responsibility for the attack in an e-mail sent to journalists.
The victim, a resident of a Jewish settlement nearby, was in his 40s and was a father of seven, said Col. Avi Gil, the Israeli military commander in the area.
Gil said the military had lifted restrictions on Palestinian movement in the area and that the perpetrators took advantage of that. Shootings were once commonplace on routes around the West Bank but have become rare.
- Associated Press