Pilgrims await papal mass in Bethlehem's Manger Square

Pope Francis waves upon his arrival at the West Bank town of Bethlehem.

BETHLEHEM, Palestinian Territories - Wave upon wave of Catholic pilgrims shuffled into a buzzing Manger Square in the West Bank town of Bethlehem early Sunday, where Pope Francis was to celebrate mass.

Palestinian soldiers were busy setting up barriers and metal detectors in and around the square from 5am, as part of a massive security operation shortly before the pilgrims began filing in.

The stage set up for the pontiff, who arrived early Sunday by helicopter from Jordan, was flanked by huge Palestinian and Vatican flags, and adorned with a giant tableau depicting Jesus's birth in Bethlehem.

Local Palestinian Christians were joined by Europeans, Africans and Asians all eagerly anticipating Francis's arrival, and speculating on the message he would bring.

"He's not going to talk about politics, just spiritual matters," said Nabil Abu Nicola, who had travelled from Nazareth, Israel's largest Arab town.

"This is better, because a political understanding of this region is very hard. You need to be here for 20 years before you really understand the conflict," he said.

Francis has insisted his visit will be "purely religious," with observers saying he will attempt to avoid the pitfalls of the intractable Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

"In the Galilee, people live together in peace. But the minute politics enters the debate, it immediately divides people, labelling this person an Arab, that person a Jew, and so on," Abu Nicola said.

But in a reminder of the ubiquitous political debate in the volatile region, a banner hanging on a mosque on the square read: "The detainees in the occupation's (Israel's) prisons are pleading for freedom and dignity." And other pilgrims expressed hope that Francis's message, even if only spiritual, could bring real change on the ground.

"I pray for peace in this region," said Father Dominic Tran, a priest who had travelled from Vietnam to attend the mass.

"Our country went through a long, terrible war, and we know what it's like, so we pray the pope can bring here the spirit of peace on earth," he said.

Angolan Martins Felisberto, sporting the red, yellow and black colours of his country, hoped the visit would signal a change for persecuted Christians in the Middle East.

"Francis's coming to Palestine means a lot because you have many Christians in the Arab world who are persecuted," he said.

The pontiff called for fresh peace talks on Syria in a speech to refugees in Jordan Saturday, the first day of a three-day visit to the Middle East, that continues in Jerusalem later Sunday and Monday.

"He's unlike other popes in terms of his humanity, and I hope he can bring real change on the ground," said Ibrahim Handal, a Bethlehem native.

"Hopefully he can help end the (Israeli) occupation and bring peace. Through faith, you can move mountains."

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