The Holy Land prepared to mark Christmas on Friday in the heart of a region overshadowed by the massacre and exodus of Christians from Iraq and a troubled peace process.
Christians from around the world, including for the first time from Arab countries with have no diplomatic ties with Israel, flocked to Bethlehem to celebrate the holiday in the West Bank city where Christ was born.
Tourists from the United States, Europe, Asia, Latin America and Africa packed hotels, towards the end of a bumper year for foreign visitors to Bethlehem.
The day's events, which include a traditional procession and a concert in Manger Square, were to be capped by a midnight mass delivered 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, but also sound a somber tone after the October 31 massacre of worshippers in a Baghdad church.
In a pre-Christmas message, Twal offered solidarity to Iraqi Christians, who have been the target of repeated bloody attacks, including the church attack that killed 44 worshippers and two priests.
"We were shocked and troubled by the massacre of Christians in Baghdad in the church," Twal said.
"For the Iraqi Christians, we are with them in this bad situation," he added, noting the sharp drop in the number of Christians in Iraq from about 800,000 at the time of the US-led invasion of 2003 to about 500,000 now.
He also lamented the failure of renewed direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, but urged the faithful not to give up hope.
"We continue to believe that on both sides, and in the international community, there are men of goodwill who will work and put their energies together in their commitment for peace," he said in his address on Tuesday.
"We believe that nothing is impossible with God."
Twal was to arrive in Bethlehem at around 1100 GMT in a procession that travels along Star Street and into Manger Square, where the Church of the Nativity is located.
At least 90,000 people are expected to flood the city for the Christmas celebrations, according to Palestinian Authority figures.
More than 500 members of the Gaza Strip's tiny Christian community left the blockaded territory on Thursday to participate in Christmas celebrations in Jesus' traditional birthplace.
The Israeli military coordinated the rare passage to the West Bank ahead of the holiday, saying it was part of its goal to ensure freedom of worship for all religions.
About 3,500 Christians live in Gaza among 1.5 million Muslims. Relations have traditionally been good, though there has been sporadic violence against Christians since the Islamic Hamas movement wrestled control of the strip three years ago.
Residents leaving Gaza played down any differences with Hamas, saying they were in solidarity as Palestinians in the struggle against Israel.
"Of course I am very happy that I will see my relatives and join them for Christmas. It happens only once a year," said Hatem Al-Far. "The only problem is they (the Israelis) did not issue permits for all of my children."
During the Hamas takeover, vandals ransacked a Roman Catholic convent and an adjacent school, breaking crosses and smashing the face of a ceramic Jesus.
In the following months, unidentified assailants detonated a bomb outside a Christian school, firebombed a Christian bookshop and killed a Christian who worked at one.
Hamas says it is committed to protecting the Christian minority, but no arrests have been made in any of the incidents.
Christians currently comprise less than 2 percent of the population in the West Bank and Gaza, compared to about 15 percent in 1950. Like many other Christian communities across the Middle East, many have moved abroad to flee political tensions or in search of economic opportunities.