The bells of the nativity church echo across the valley, summoning the crowds thronging Bethlehem’s sleepless streets. With security guards and fences to keep the multitudes of worshippers in check, it looks more like a scene from a New York nightclub than a midnight Christmas mass.
Huddling in line together, old women clutch rosaries to their chests murmuring prayers to the night sky, children sleep in haphazard positions in their parents' arms, and tourists buzz excitedly, their cameras creating a flurry of flashing lights.
Stepping into the cavernous hall of the church I take my place among the rows of visitors pressing against the walls as they crane their necks to view a series of religious rites meticulously passed down from one devout generation to the next.
Incense permeates the air, and a man behind me hums softly. Standing in a drafty church thronged by the devout and the curious, my heart warms to the elaborate celebration of such a simple message. Peace.
An Italian nun presses my hand and wishes me a Buon Natale. I return her wish before ducking back outside. The crowds circling the perimeter of the church have increased, and guards with assault rifles carelessly slung over their shoulders eye their flock wearily.
The lights from a nearby Israeli settlement flicker and Jerusalem’s silhouette can be seen rising above the separation barrier. Just beyond the small towns flanking Bethlehem, the desert hills are bathed in moonlight and exuding the borrowed peace of a Christmas Eve.