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Believed fragment of Jesus's manger arrives in Bethlehem

Palestinian marching bands greet fragment of revered Christian artifact as it returns to West Bank
A Franciscan clergyman stands by the the Relic of the Holy Crib of the Child Jesus during a ceremony at the Church of the Nativity compound in Bethlehem (AFP)

The Christmas season began in Bethlehem on Saturday as a wooden fragment believed to be from the manger of Jesus arrived in his alleged birthplace amid great ceremony after more than 1,300 years in Europe.

The wood piece, just a few centimetres long, was once kept in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. It was handed over earlier this week to the custodian of the Bethlehem church, who said it brought "great honour to believers and pilgrims in the area".

A Palestinian scout band playing bagpipes, drums and saxophones accompanied the relic as it arrived in Manger Square, an AFP reporter said.

Worshippers thronged the square as the chief custodian for the Holy Land, Francesco Patton, carried the ornate reliquary housing the relic into the Saint Catherine Church next to the Church of the Nativity, where he led mass.

Palestinian scout troops perform during a parade ahead of the arrival of the Relic of the Holy Crib of the Child Jesus at the Church of the Nativity compound in Bethlehem (AFP)
Palestinian scout troops perform during a parade ahead of the arrival of the Relic of the Holy Crib of the Child Jesus at the Church of the Nativity compound in Bethlehem (AFP)

On Friday Patton told AFP that the seventh-century Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Sophronius, had sent the relic to Rome in around 640 as a gift to Pope Theodore I.

Now the item, about a centimetre wide by 2.5 centimetres long, is to be installed "forever" in Bethlehem, he said.

"We venerate the relic because (it) reminds us of the mystery of incarnation, to the fact that the son of God was born of Mary in Bethlehem more than 2,000 years ago," Patton said.

Bethlehem has planned celebrations stretching until Christmas for the homecoming.

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas had asked Pope Francis to repatriate the crib fragment during his visit to the Vatican for Middle East peace talks in December 2018, said Palestinian envoy to the Holy See, Issa Kassissieh.

Bethlehem, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, is usually particularly busy ahead of Christmas on 25 December, with tourists and pilgrims flocking to the Biblical city.

Christians make up around one percent of the Palestinian population in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.

"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," said Chris Giacaman, 53, a Bethlehem homemaker, as she stood outside Saint Catherine Church, speaking to Reuters.

Others were a little let down.

"It's a small piece, we thought it would be a bigger piece," said 32-year-old Sandy Shahin Hijazeen.

"When we heard that the manger is coming back we thought it would be the whole manger, but then we saw it."