Christmas in Bethlehem this year will be especially joyful for local Christians who – according to their bishop – have hailed the UN recognition of the state of Palestine as a "victory".
Auxiliary Bishop William Shomali of Jerusalem stressed that the morale of Palestinians – both Christians and Muslims – was boosted by last month's 'status upgrade' for Palestine by the United Nations General Assembly.
A motion changing Palestine's "entity" status to a "non-member state" received overwhelming support at the UN, thereby implicitly recognising its sovereignty.
Speaking in an interview with Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, Bishop Shomali said: "For Christians in and around Bethlehem, Christmas this year will be joyful because of the UN recognition of the Palestinian state.
"This has given people a lot of morale and indeed is seen by many as a victory."
He went on to say Christians were further cheered this Christmas by the ceasefire agreement between Israel and Gaza's Hamas regime following the worst outbreak of violence in several years.
But Bishop Shomali said the festive spirit was tempered by many overseas tourists scrapping Christmas pilgrimages to the Holy Land in response to last month's conflict.
He said: "There will certainly be fewer pilgrims and other visitors from overseas. Many have cancelled their trips here but we will still have many people coming from Galilee and elsewhere as well as many Christians from Bethlehem."
In a separate ACN interview, Patriarch Fouad Twal of Jerusalem thanked the charity after it launched a prayer campaign after the outbreak of violence between Israel and Gaza.
Patriarch Twal said: "I sincerely thank and bless all those from Aid to the Church in Need who have prayed with us during the latest Gaza war."
His words were echoed by Father Jorge Hernandez, parish priest of the Holy Family Church, Gaza, who explained that a bomb was dropped less than 50 meters from the church, fortunately with no casualties.
But, with violence continuing in nearby Syria, Bishop Shomali told ACN that the conflict there was of grave concern to Christians in the Holy Land.
He said: "What is happening in Syria casts a dark shadow. It impacts on us very greatly. We are not happy with what is happening in Syria. We are anxious and sad about the situation there."
The bishop went on: "There are good and bad feelings this Christmas but if we consider that Christmas is above all a spiritual feast, I believe it will be a very good celebration."
Bishop Shomali last month met Aid to the Church in Need staff and benefactors on a Holy Land pilgrimage led by ACN UK director Neville Kyrke-Smith.
The pilgrims visited projects supported by the charity including the Solidarity Village, a low-cost housing scheme for young Christians in East Jerusalem, Bethlehem Seminary and families who make crosses, cribs and other olive wood religious items retailed by ACN.
The ACN pilgrimage coincided with the outbreak of violence in the region and, on return to the UK, Mr Kyrke-Smith launched a prayer appeal for peace.
At the time, he said: "The Christian community must not stand back hoping that conflicts like this will burn themselves out. We have to act now for the people.
"Our Lord prayed for the peace of Jerusalem. We must pray too for the peace of Jerusalem and the wider Middle East."