A small relic of wood believed to be a fragment of the manger where Jesus was laid after his birth arrived in Bethlehem on Saturday, a gift from Pope Francis to help mark the start of the Christmas season.
The relic was welcomed in the city some 1,400 years after it is said to have left the Holy Land. It was donated to Pope Theodore in the seventh century by St. Sophronius, patriarch of Jerusalem, according to the Custos of the Holy Land for the Catholic Church, the group receiving the relic.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had asked to borrow the entire manger, but the pope decided to send a tiny portion of it to stay permanently in Bethlehem, the custodian of the Franciscan order in the Holy Land, Brother Francesco Patton, told the Associated Press.
The rest of what is believed to be left of the manger is kept at the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome.
The thumb-size relic was unveiled at the Notre Dame church in Jerusalem before it arrived in Bethlehem, where it was greeted with marching bands and cheerful crowds, Reuters and the Associated Press reported. It is now being kept at the Franciscan Church of St. Catherine, next to the famous Church of the Nativity, traditionally known as the site where Jesus was born.
"We are proud that part of the manger is back in Bethlehem because we feel that the soul of God is with us more than before," Chris Giacaman, 53, a Bethlehem homemaker, told Reuters as she stood outside the church.
Others were less ecstatic. "It's a small piece, we thought it would be a bigger piece," Sandy Shahin Hijazeen, 32, told Reuters.
The relic's arrival coincides with Advent, the four-week period ahead of Christmas, also high season for tourism in Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
It was not the first time that the pope has sent out relics this year. In July, he gave relics of what is believed to be fragments of St. Peter's bones to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church, generating controversy among Catholics, the Catholic News Agency reported. The pope later wrote a letter explaining that he wanted to bring the two churches closer together through the gift.