Bethlehem Christmas celebrations will culminate in Midnight Mass at the 1,700-year-old Church of the Nativity, built on the spot where it is believed Jesus was born
Hundreds of thousands of Christian pilgrims and tourists from around the world are expected in Bethlehem for Christmas Midnight Mass.
About 120,000 visitors are in the Palestinian West Bank town, 30% up on last year, officials said.
Crowds gathered early to sing carols around the 50ft (15m) Christmas tree in Manger Square.
Celebrations will culminate in Midnight Mass at the 1,700-year-old Church of the Nativity, built on the spot where it is believed Jesus was born.
The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fuad Twal, has travelled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, where he will later lead the Midnight Mass.
He passed through the massive gate in the controversial Israeli security barrier that separates Jerusalem from Bethlehem and arrived in Manger Square, where he was greeted with a bagpipe band.
Patriarch Fuad Twal, a Palestinian who is a Jordanian citizen, has expressed concern for Christians in the current upheavals in the Middle East and asked them to support the moves towards freedom and democracy.
His midnight homily will urge “the return of calm and reconciliation in Syria, in Egypt, in Iraq and in North Africa”.
It will read: “O Child of Bethlehem, in this New Year, we place in your hands this troubled Middle East and, above all, our youth full of legitimate aspirations, who are frustrated by the economic and political situation, and in search of a better future.”
Boy scouts with drums and bagpipes have taken part in the traditional afternoon procession through the town.
Restaurants and shops selling memorabilia such as olive wood-carved religious statues were doing brisk trade as habit-wearing monks rubbed shoulders with Father Christmas hat-wearing Filipino tourists.
Bethlehem Mayor Victor Batarseh said he hoped the festivities would bring Palestinians closer to their dream of statehood.
Israel controls access to Bethlehem through checkpoints and the controversial barrier.
Residents say their livelihoods are imperiled by the barrier, which skirts around the edge of Bethlehem, surrounding it on three sides.
Once predominantly Christian, two-thirds of Bethlehem’s 50,000 residents are now Muslim.
Some say the economic restrictions imposed by Israel are the main reason behind the exodus of Christians from the West Bank; others cite persecution by militant Muslims.
Shylah Silbery, a three-year-old girl from Wellington, New Zealand, survived for two days on eating cheese and leftover lasagne after her mother died suddenly leaving her locked in her home.
The little girl hugged her favourite toy – a teddy bear named Possum – as she waited alone in the house near her mother’s body.
Shylah Silbery was rescued when her mother’s relatives alerted the authorities when they had not heard from her for two days.
Police who went to the property managed to coax the little girl to drag a coffee table to the door so she could climb up and unlock it.
Shylah Silbery told police: “Mummy won’t wake up.”
Lauren Silbery, 28, was found face down next to her bed. Her daughter had been able to drink milk and feed herself with whatever she could find in the fridge.
Shylah Silbery, a three-year-old girl from Wellington, New Zealand, survived for two days on eating cheese and leftover lasagne after her mother died suddenly leaving her locked in her home
Shylah Silbery spent several days in hospital recovering from dehydration and urine burns before attending her mother’s funeral.
Shylah’s uncle Peter Silbery, 24, said: “I can only imagine her in there for that long, trying to wake Mum up.
“She’s doing okay now. She’s still bubbly. When we lowered the coffin into the grave at the cemetery, though, she pointed at it and said, <<Mummy’s in there>>. It was pretty heartbreaking.”
Lauren Silbery, 28, was found face down next to her bed
Peter Silbery spoke every night to his sister, but he nad his mother grew so concerned after failing to reach her for two days they rang a friend who lived nearby.
The friend went to the house and saw the little girl inside but no sign of Lauren .
Lauren Silbery’s mother, Heather, said: “Lauren and I were very close – she would ring me every morning.
“One day I was in the garden and that afternoon at about four o’clock… her brother Peter and I said, <<Well, we haven’t heard from Lauren>>.
So we got a friend to go around there and [the grandchild] had come to the cat door, but Lauren hadn’t, so I dialled 111.”
Heather Silbery said she knew Lauren was dead the instant she heard that neighbours couldn’t contact her.
“Lauren wouldn’t have done anything silly. She loved Shylah so much and was a devoted mum. But I knew exactly what had happened. It’s a mother’s instinct.
“Her daughter was everything to her. She was the type of person who has a nice way of bringing people together.”
Officers saw the little girl inside the house and taught her how to open the door by getting her to stand on a coffee table.
Shylah Silbery’s grandmother said: “[She] is still a bit quiet, but she still smiles and she’s one of those kids that makes you laugh and you love to have her around.
“When we started cleaning and taking Lauren’s stuff out of the flat, she did say <<Mummy won’t wake up>> and when we went back in, she had shut her mother’s bedroom door.
“She goes all around the flat happy, but she would not go in that room.”
The death of Lauren Silbery at her house in the Upper Hutt area of Wellington is as yet unexplained.
Police and the family believe that she died of natural causes but an investigation on behalf of the coroner has now been started.
They said the fact Lauren Silbery was face down next to her bed was consistent with her having a heart attack or stroke and falling out of bed, but they said they need to wait for the results of an autopsy.
Shylah Silbery is now awaiting a Child, Youth and Family decision about whether she will be returned to her family.
The toddler was placed in CYF care after the discovery.
Yesterday, central regional director Karen Petrie said she hoped to place Shylah back with her family.
“This is an absolutely tragic event and our sympathy goes out to this family. Child, Youth and Family’s preference in these situations is to place children in the care of extended family members as long as this is in the best interests of the child, and circumstances permit.”
“Shylah Silbery was in regular contact with her family, and the agency was working with them to care for her immediate needs,” Karen Petrie said.