Thousands of people have gathered to celebrate Christmas at Manger Square in the occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem, the site where Christians believe Jesus was born.
Tourists, pilgrims and clergy converged on Christianity's holiest city following a tumultuous year of political upheaval and change across the Arab world.
"I have always defended the changes taking place in favour of freedom and democracy"
- Latin Patriarch Fuad Twal,
Saturday's events were to be focused on Manger Square, the plaza in the town centre which was to host a traditional Christmas procession at midday followed by other entertainment on what is the biggest tourist attraction of the year.
Music filled the square as pilgrims sang carols in Arabic, and street vendors were doing a brisk trade in cakes, sweets and hot air balloons.
Al Jazeera's Rory Challands, reporting from Bethlehem, described the occupied West Bank town as being "an absolute cacophony of noise, drumming and bagpipes".
"Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, will also be arriving later on Saturday. The main event is going to be midnight mass later on this evening," he said.
Message of hope
The celebrations were to continue into the night and culminate with a celebration of the Midnight Mass by Latin Patriarch Fuad Twal, the most senior Catholic bishop in the Middle East.
He is expected to deliver a message of hope for peace in the Middle East and around the world, a message that was also expected to touch on the revolutions sweeping the Arab world.
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In a pre-Christmas message, Twal acknowledged feeling "a little anxious and concerned" about the ongoing turmoil in the Arab world.
"I have always defended the changes taking place in favour of freedom and democracy. I have repeatedly emphasised that Christians are not excluded from these movements," he said.
Twal urged the ruling authorities to "make every effort to calm the spirits, without violence" and pressed them to "grasp this moment of opportunity to build a new society based on equal citizenship for all".
He also called for a "just and comprehensive peace" to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Bethlehem's Manger Square is the location of the Church of the Nativity, which was built on the site where Christians believe Mary gave birth to Jesus in a cattle shed, and laid him in an animal's feeding trough, also known as a manger.
Bethlehem attracts hundreds of thousands of pilgrims each year and is the main tourist attraction in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies