World Celebrates Christmas

( [email protected] ) Dec 25, 2008 12:30 PM EST

Thousands of pilgrims overcame checkpoints and tight security to celebrate Christmas with a mass last night in the birthplace of Christ, Bethlehem.

While Manger Square thronged with families and pilgrims, Palestinian and Israeli troops working together to see that the festivities went ahead without any trouble and revellers set off pink fireworks in celebration.

Happy crowds gathered at the Church of the Nativity, the traditional birthplace of Jesus, for the midnight mass led by the most senior Catholic cleric in the Holy Land, Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal.

He told the congregation that peace came from God.

"War does not produce peace, prisons do not guarantee stability. The highest of walls do not assure security. Peace is a gift of God, and only God can give that peace."

The scene in the West Bank town was a stark contrast to Hamas-controlled Gaza just 45 miles away, where militants fired rockets and mortar shells onto Israeli communities.

The Pope similarly called for an end to “hatred and violence” in the Middle East in his midnight mass.

Addressing a packed St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, Pope Benedict appealed to Christians to pray that “hearts will be opened so borders will be opened.” He will deliver a Christmas Day sermon later today.

The Archbishop of Canterbury said in his Christmas message, meanwhile, that the global work of salvation starts close to home.

“The gospel tells us something hard to hear - that there is not going to be a single charismatic leader or a dedicated political campaign or a war to end all wars that will bring the golden age; it tells us that history will end when God decides, not when we think we have sorted all our problems out,” he said.

“What can be done to show his glory? So often the answer to this lies in the small and local gestures, the unique difference made in some particular corner of the world.”

The Queen is using her Christmas message to address the impact of the credit crunch on the nation.

The festivities will take on a more “sombre” tone for many this year amid job losses and financial insecurity, she will say.