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Sacred religious occasion a major political event Add to ...

Bethlehem - About 3,000 people in Manger Square are celebrating mass led by Pope Benedict XVI, and celebrating is the right word. Two thirds of them waited hours in the seats set up outside the Church of the Nativity, while the rest stand around the edges, craning to see, or sit in the chairs of the surrounding cafes gabbing happily to each other.

For some Palestinians here, it's a sacred religious occasion, for all Palestinians it's a major political event.

For one day (of the five that he is staying in Israel and the Palestinian territories) the Pope is all theirs. He already has spoken at the presidential compound here and expressed his support for "the right of [the]people to a sovereign Palestinian homeland."

Later, he will visit the Aida refugee camp to express his solidarity with the refugees who fled what is now Israel.

Seldom has so much international attention been paid to them and their cause.

The steps of Bethlehem's Peace Centre (that houses the archeological museum, among other things) have been converted into an altar, where the Pope in golden robes and mitre, sits, flanked by many of his accompanying cardinals and local clergy, mostly clad in white.

Combined with the flowers surrounding the altar and the yellow and white hats and flags, it is a sea of Vatican colours.

UPDATE: As the mass ended and Benedict exited the altar, cries of "Vive al Papa" and Vive Palestinia" rang out.

The crowd dispersed slowly, many gathering at the adjacent cafes, others parading through the streets waving Palestinian flags and beating drums.

It was as if they didn't want the moment to end.

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