Worshippers rejoice in Jesus' Bethlehem birthplace

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) — Pilgrims are celebrating Christmas Day in the ancient Bethlehem church where tradition holds Jesus was born.

Worshippers filled the fourth-century Church of the Nativity complex Wednesday with candles illuminating the sacred site and the sounds of joyous prayer filling its halls.

Iskandar Salameh, an 18-year-old Palestinian, said the Christmas spirit was uniting those gathered. He says: "We all feel that Jesus is with us today."

The top Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land, Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal, led a prayer for the worshippers. He called on followers to spread "the message of Jesus — the message of love and reconciliation."

Later, Pope Francis will deliver his first Christmas message as pontiff from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica to pilgrims, tourists and Romans gathered in the piazza below.

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