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    Christmas pilgrims gather in Bethlehem after hard year

    Scouts playing bagpipes and drums marched to the church in a procession led by Jerusalem's

    Baku. 25 December. REPORT.AZ/ Millions of Christians around the world began Christmas celebrations Wednesday, with worshippers in the Middle East marking the occasion after a violence-plagued year that brought suffering to many.

    The not-so-little West Bank town of Bethlehem was bustling with activity ahead of the biggest night of the year which will culminate in midnight mass at the Church of the Nativity built over the spot where Christians believe the Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus.

    Scouts playing bagpipes and drums marched to the church in a procession led by Jerusalem's Latin Patriarch Fuad Twal, the top Catholic cleric in the Holy Land.

    Outside the church at Manger Square, a man dressed as Father Christmas handed out sweets next to a giant green Christmas tree decorated with red, black and silver baubles -- the colours of the Palestinian flag.

    But for many faithful across the region, the festivities will be tinged with sadness following a year of bloodshed marked by a surge in the persecution of Christians that has drawn international condemnation, informs Report citing BBC.

    "For many of you, the music of your Christmas hymns will also be accompanied by tears and sighs," Pope Francis wrote in a long letter addressed to Christians in the Middle East.

    Even in the Palestinian territories, Christmas will be a deliberately low-key affair after a July-August war with Israel which left nearly 2,200 Gazans dead and the tiny enclave in ruins in the third such conflict in six years.

    In The Vatican, Francis will celebrate the Christmas Vigil mass in St Peter's Basilica from 2030 GMT before delivering his traditional "Urbi et Orbi" blessing.

    - 'Brutally driven out' -

    Ahead of the celebrations, the Argentine pontiff voiced concern about the growing persecution of Christians, some of whom he said had been "brutally driven out" of areas where they have lived since New Testament times.

    Francis delivered a Christmas message via telephone to refugees displaced to Iraq's Kurdish autonomous region.

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