BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) — A tiny wooden relic that some Christians believe to be part of Jesus’ manger arrived Saturday in its permanent home in the biblical city of Bethlehem 1,400 years after it was sent to Rome as a gift to the pope.
Sheathed in an ornate case, cheerful crowds greeted the relic with much fanfare before it entered the Franciscan Church of St. Catherine next to the Church of the Nativity, the West Bank holy site where tradition says Jesus was born.
The return of the relic by the Vatican was a spirit-lifting moment for the Palestinians. It coincides with Advent, a four-week period leading up to Christmas. Troubled Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank is bracing for the occasion, where pilgrims from around the world flock to the city.
Young Palestinian scouts played bagpipes and the crowd snapped pictures as a clergyman held the silver reliquary and marched toward the church.
Christians make up a small minority of Palestinians and Bethlehem is one of the only cities in the West Bank and Gaza where Christmas is celebrated.
Brother Francesco Patton, the custodian of the Franciscan order in the Holy Land, said Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had asked Pope Francis to borrow the entire manger, but the pope decided to send a tiny portion of it to stay permanently in Bethlehem.
“It’s a great joy” that the piece returns to its original place, Patton said, according to Wafa, the official Palestinian news agency.
A wooden structure that Christians believe was part of the manger where Jesus was born was sent by St. Sophronius, the patriarch of Jerusalem, to Pope Theodore I in the 640s, around the time of the Muslim conquest of the Holy Land.
On Friday, the thumb-sized wooden piece was unveiled to worshippers at the Notre Dame church in Jerusalem for a day of celebrations and prayer.
On Saturday evening, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh and other officials attended the a Christmas tree lighting in Manger Square outside the Church of the Nativity.
Hundreds of faithful and residents also gathered for the festive annual event, which included fireworks and songs. Crowds cheered as the giant tree was illuminated.
Revelers and worshipers alike will pack the same square for Christmas Eve festivities later in December.