Bethlehem: Pilgrims from across the world descended on Jesus's birthplace in Bethlehem on Wednesday to begin the global celebration of Christmas after a violence-plagued year brought suffering to many Middle Eastern Christians.
The not-so-little West Bank town was bustling with activity ahead of the biggest night of the year which will culminate in midnight mass at the Nativity Church built over the spot where Mary gave birth to Jesus.
In Manger Square outside the church, a man dressed as Father Christmas was handing out sweets and the wail of bagpipes rang out as troops of Palestinian scouts marched past 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.
"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.
Cars carrying foreign pilgrims could be seen passing through the festooned streets of Bethlehem early on Wednesday while small groups could be seen gathering in Manger Square ahead of the midnight mass.
In Rome, Francis will celebrate the Christmas Vigil mass in St Peter's Basilica from 2030 GMT before delivering his traditional "Urbi et Orbi" blessing.
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.
In a clear illusion to the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group, he spoke of "the work of a newer and disturbing terrorist organisation, of previously unimaginable dimensions, which has perpetrated all kinds of abuses and inhuman acts."
In Baghdad, Chaldean Patriarch Louis Sako told AFP that around 150,000 Christians had been displaced by an offensive spearheaded by IS, which has targeted Christians and other minorities, with dozens leaving Iraq each day.