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Archbishop To Condemn Israel At Midnight Mass
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Bethlehem, Agencies - One of the most influential Catholic Bishops in the Middle East is expected to criticise Israel during the Christmas Eve midnight mass in Bethlehem.

It is thought the Latin Patriach of Jerusalem, Archbishop Fouad Twal, will label Israel's continued construction of illegal settlements in the Palestinian Territories an obstacle to regional stability.

Thousands of pilgrims across the world will gather to hear the mass, delivered at the Church of the Nativity, built on the site where Jesus is believed to have been born in a stable more than 2,000 years ago.

The Archbishop will also call for an immediate end to conflict in Syria and to the persecution of Christians in the region.

But with negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority now resumed after years of stagnation, he is expected to take the opportunity to address the talks directly.

At a news conference last week, Archbishop Twal said the efforts of US Secretary of State John Kerry to find a peaceful resolution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict were being "hampered by the continuous building of Israeli settlements".

Archbishiop Twal added: "As long as this problem is not resolved, the people of our region will suffer.

"While the attention has shifted from the situation in the Holy Land to the tragedy in Syria, it must be stated that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains crucial to the region and is a major obstacle in the development of our society and stability in the middle east."

Israel's approval of new settlement housing units since August, when the latest round of talks began, has been criticised by many western diplomats, including John Kerry.

Father Jamal Khader, Director of the Catholic Seminary in Bethlehem, who is close to the Patriach, told Sky News he expects the message to be reiterated later today.

"What we need is freedom," he said. "What we need is independence and what we need is an end to the occupation. I think the Patriarch will call for an end to the occupation."

Bethlehem, which lies around 10km (six miles) south of Jerusalem, is governed by the Palestinian Authority but is surrounded by Israel's separation wall, check-points and numerous West Bank settlements, which are deemed illegal under international law.

Construction of the separation wall began in 2002 as a security measure in response to waves of suicide bombings in Israel during the Second Intifada. But critics say it is also being used as a means of extending Israel's borders and confiscating Palestinian land.

While more than a million tourists have visited the town in 2013, the movement restrictions faced by those resident in the Palestinian Territories can make it difficult for Palestinian Christians to visit the Church in normal circumstances.

Over the Christmas period these restrictions have been eased, with Israel putting in place measures to allow Christians from elsewhere in the West Bank and Gaza to join the celebrations.

This will include permits for 500 residents of Gaza, aged under 16 or over 35, who will be authorised to travel to Bethlehem until the end of January.

Lt Col Eyal Zeevi, Head of the Israel Occupation Forces' Bethlehem District Coordination Office, said: "Israel is making a significant effort to safeguard freedom of religion in the area, facilitate participation in religious ceremonies and ensure that Christians in the region enjoy the holiday spirit."

Similar measures are also likely to be implemented in May 2014 when Pope Francis is due make a brief visit to both Bethlehem and Jerusalem.

The visit is being seen as an attempt by the Catholic Church to draw attention to the growing persecution of Christians in countries across the region.

But for Bethlehem's tourism-dependent economy, it also promises to be a blessing, with the likelihood of thousands more pilgrims heading to the town, where the Pope will hold the only public mass of his visit.

In his Christmas message, President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, said he welcomed the visit and hoped the Pope would "spread the message of justice and peace for the Palestinians".

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