25 December 2004 -- Hundreds of millions of Christians are celebrating Christmas today. Many of those are turning their thoughts to a small Palestinian West Bank town where many people believe Jesus Christ was born 2,004 years ago.
According to scripture, Jesus, the son of God, was born miraculously to a virgin named Mary in the town of Bethlehem. The story goes that Mary, unable to find room at the local inn, laid her baby in a manger in a humble outbuilding.
The tale is commemorated annually in Christmas celebrations around the world as one of the two main Christian religious festivals.
Several thousand worshippers celebrated Christmas Eve mass in Bethlehem last night. Israel eased travel restrictions to allow Christians from the Gaza Strip, West Bank and Israel to visit the town, turning over security in Bethlehem to armed Palestinian police.
In Rome, thousands of people gathered in St. Peter's Basilica to witness Pope John Paul II deliver the traditional Christmas Eve Mass.
During the solemn mass, which was attended by representatives of some 150 governments, the Pope read a prayer of peace. The 84-year-old pontiff suffers from Parkinsons disease, and has difficulty speaking. He said the troubled world needs the message of Jesus now more than ever.
"Look upon us, eternal Son of God, who took flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary! All humanity, with its burden of trials and troubles, stands in need of you. Stay with us, living Bread which came down from heaven for our salvation! Stay with us forever! Amen!" the pope said.
The mass in Rome was watched by tens of millions live on television in more than 70 countries.
In Pakistan's capital Islamabad, President General Pervez Musharraf gave a Christmas Day message, calling for greater interfaith harmony by removing distrust and misunderstanding among the followers of different religions.
Musharraf's message came as the small Christian community in Indian Kashmir gathered for Christmas celebrations in Srinagar, praying for an end to violence in the Himalayan region.
Christians in Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim-populated country, flocked to churches today to celebrate Christmas under tight security following warnings of possible terrorist attacks.
Around 180,000 police officers are deployed across the country after warnings by the governments of Australia, Britain, and the United States that militants are poised to strike during the Christmas season.
In China, where Christmas is becoming increasingly popular, people crowded into government-approved churches -- churches that are not recognized by the Vatican, which says millions of Christians in China are living underground in fear of persecution.
Many people in China hold clandestine Christmas Day service in homes, restaurants, and other areas. Police prevented one such celebration at a restaurant in Beijing, and prevented participants from leaving their homes.
Mass religious services are being held today in Russia's Roman Catholic cathedrals. There are some 250 Roman Catholic communities and organizations registered in Russia. Patriarch of Moscow and All-Russia Alexii II yesterday congratulated Christian church leaders marking Christmas according to the Western tradition.
(compiled from wire and service reports)