Patriarch Fouad Twal, head of the Roman Catholic Church in Jerusalem, has voiced his support for a Palestinian state during a procession to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus.
Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal said this Christmas would be a celebration of “the birth of Christ our lord and the birth of the state of Palestine”.
Last month, the United Nations upgraded the status of the Palestinians to that of a “non-member observer state”.
Patriarch Fouad Twal is due to lead midnight mass at the Church of the Nativity.
Patriarch Fouad Twal, head of the Roman Catholic Church in Jerusalem, has voiced his support for a Palestinian state during a procession to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus
The church is seen by Christians as the traditional birthplace of Jesus, and is in an area of the West Bank governed by the Palestinian Authority.
In June the church was formally named a Unesco World Heritage Site – the first to be nominated by the Palestinians, who were made full members of Unesco earlier this year.
Patriarch Fouad Twal, who was born in Jordan, led a symbolic procession from Jerusalem’s Old City to Bethlehem, passing through the separation barrier and checkpoint built by the Israelis.
He was met at the church in Manger Square by thousands of tourists, pilgrims and clergy.
The United Nations General Assembly has voted to grant the Palestinians non-member observer state status – a move opposed by Israel and the US.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told the assembly the vote was the “last chance to save the two-state solution” with Israel.
Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Ron Prosor, said the bid “doesn’t advance peace – it pushes it backwards”.
The assembly voted 138-9 in favor, with 41 nations abstaining.
Hundreds of Palestinians celebrated on the streets of Ramallah, in the West Bank, after the result was announced.
“Sixty-five years ago on this day, the United Nations General Assembly adopted resolution 181, which partitioned the land of historic Palestine into two states and became the birth certificate for Israel,” Mahmoud Abbas told the assembly.
“The General Assembly is called upon today to issue a birth certificate of the reality of the State of Palestine,” he said.
Ron Prosor said “the only way to reach peace is through agreements” between the parties, not at the UN.
“No decision by the UN can break the 4,000-year-old bond between the people of Israel and the land of Israel,” he said.
Opponents of the bid say a Palestinian state should emerge only out of bilateral negotiations, as set out in the 1993 Oslo peace accords under which the Palestinian Authority was established.
Speaking after the vote, the US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, urged the Palestinians and Israel to resume direct peace talks and warned against unilateral actions.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the vote “unfortunate and counter-productive”, saying it put more obstacles on the path to peace.
“By going to the UN, the Palestinians have violated the agreements with Israel and Israel will act accordingly,” said the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Twitter.
The UK abstained from the vote, as did Germany. The Czech Republic, the Marshall Islands and Panama were among the nations voting with the US and Israel.
The Palestinians are seeking UN recognition of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, the lands Israel captured in 1967.
While the move is seen as a symbolic milestone in Palestinian ambitions for statehood, the “Yes” vote will also have a practical diplomatic effect.
It would allow the Palestinians to participate in debates at the UN and improve their chances of joining UN agencies and bodies like the International Criminal Court.
Last year, Mahmoud Abbas asked the UN Security Council to admit the Palestinians as a member state, but that was opposed by the US.
Mahmoud Abbas was much criticized by many Palestinians for remaining on the sidelines of the conflict earlier this month in Gaza and efforts to achieve a ceasefire with Israel.
His Fatah movement, based in the West Bank, is deeply split from the militant Hamas movement which governs Gaza.
Gaza’s Prime Minister Ismael Haniyeh said in a statement that Hamas’ “support for the UN bid is based on the <<rule of non-recognition of the occupier>>… and the right of Palestinians to return to their homeland”.