BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Orthodox Christmas celebrations kicked off in the traditional birthplace of Jesus on Wednesday to the sound of bagpipes and protests by Palestinians accusing church leaders of selling land to Israelis.
Palestinian boy-scouts played bagpipes and hundreds of pilgrims watched a colourful procession led by Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III through Manger Square in the Israeli-occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem.
Two columns of Palestinian riot police escorted the top Orthodox cleric in the Holy Land to the Church of the Nativity, built on the site where Christians believe Mary gave birth to Jesus after she and Joseph found no room at the inn.
Theophilos was elected patriarch in 2005 to replace Irineos, dismissed by the church over an alleged multi-million-dollar sale of church land in annexed Arab east Jerusalem to Jewish investors.
The protesters chanted slogans against Theophilos and held up signs in English, Arabic and Greek accusing him of betraying his Palestinian followers.
"He did not fulfil his promise to cancel the deal," said Marwan Tubasi, President of the Council of Arab Orthodox Organisations and Palestinian deputy tourism minister.
Tubasi said Theophilos has since also approved the lease of further church land to an Israeli company.
Property transactions with Israelis anger Palestinians who see east Jerusalem as the capital of their promised state.
Following the procession, Theophilos began Christmas ceremonies for Greek, Syrian and Coptic churches, leading prayers at the ancient Church of the Nativity.
Some other Orthodox churches also joined in rites that were attended by hundreds of tourists and pilgrims.
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas was due to attend midnight mass.
The Orthodox faith uses the old Julian calendar in which Christmas currently falls 13 days after its more widespread Gregorian calendar counterpart on December 25.
The Armenian Church will celebrate the city's third Christmas on January 19.