Pilgrims in Bethlehem, fears in Europe on Christmas Eve

Palestinians attend a Christian scouts performance at Manger Square in Bethlehem, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, on Dec 24, 2016.
Palestinians attend a Christian scouts performance at Manger Square in Bethlehem, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, on Dec 24, 2016.PHOTO: AFP
Palestinians and tourists attend a Christian scouts performance at Manger Square in Bethlehem, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, on Dec 24, 2016.
Palestinians and tourists attend a Christian scouts performance at Manger Square in Bethlehem, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, on Dec 24, 2016.PHOTO: AFP
Iraqis take photos with a Christmas tree after attending a Christmas Eve service at the Mar Shimoni church in the town of Bartalla near Mosul on Dec 24, 2016, for the first time since its recapture from Islamic State militants.
Iraqis take photos with a Christmas tree after attending a Christmas Eve service at the Mar Shimoni church in the town of Bartalla near Mosul on Dec 24, 2016, for the first time since its recapture from Islamic State militants.PHOTO: AFP
Pope Francis looks at a figurine of baby Jesus as he celebrates a Christmas Eve mass marking the birth of Jesus Christ on Dec 24, 2016 at St Peter's basilica in the Vatican.
Pope Francis looks at a figurine of baby Jesus as he celebrates a Christmas Eve mass marking the birth of Jesus Christ on Dec 24, 2016 at St Peter's basilica in the Vatican.PHOTO: AFP
People eat in front of a food stall at a Christmas market near the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin on Dec 24, 2016.
People eat in front of a food stall at a Christmas market near the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin on Dec 24, 2016.PHOTO: AFP
People attend a Christmas Eve Mass at a Catholic church in Shanghai, China Dec 24, 2016.
People attend a Christmas Eve Mass at a Catholic church in Shanghai, China Dec 24, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS
Iranians take a picture infront of Christmas decorations at a shop in the capital Tehran on Dec 24, 2016, on Christmas eve.
Iranians take a picture infront of Christmas decorations at a shop in the capital Tehran on Dec 24, 2016, on Christmas eve.PHOTO: AFP
People take part in prayers during Christmas mass at the Elias Orthodox Church in Aleppo on Dec 24, 2016.
People take part in prayers during Christmas mass at the Elias Orthodox Church in Aleppo on Dec 24, 2016.PHOTO: AFP
People pray as they gather for a ceremony on Christmas eve at Central Brooks Memorial Church in Karachi, Pakistan, Dec 24, 2016.
People pray as they gather for a ceremony on Christmas eve at Central Brooks Memorial Church in Karachi, Pakistan, Dec 24, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS
A family takes photo at St. Mary's Cathedral as people visit for a ceremony on Christmas eve in Yangon on late Dec 24, 2016.
A family takes photo at St. Mary's Cathedral as people visit for a ceremony on Christmas eve in Yangon on late Dec 24, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS
A church member holds a cross as he walks past people praying at Central Brooks Memorial Church in Karachi, Pakistan, Dec 24, 2016
A church member holds a cross as he walks past people praying at Central Brooks Memorial Church in Karachi, Pakistan, Dec 24, 2016PHOTO: REUTERS
Chinese Christians attend Christmas Eve mass at a Catholic church in Beijing, on Dec 24, 2016.
Chinese Christians attend Christmas Eve mass at a Catholic church in Beijing, on Dec 24, 2016.PHOTO: AFP
Indian Christian devotees watch a fireworks display marking Christmas Eve outside St Peter's Church in Allahabad on Dec 24, 2016.
Indian Christian devotees watch a fireworks display marking Christmas Eve outside St Peter's Church in Allahabad on Dec 24, 2016.PHOTO: AFP
A gendarme stands guard outside the Notre-Dame Cathedral in central Paris on Christmas eve, Dec 24, 2016, ahead of midnight mass.
A gendarme stands guard outside the Notre-Dame Cathedral in central Paris on Christmas eve, Dec 24, 2016, ahead of midnight mass.PHOTO: AFP
Father Jean Rouet (left) celebrates Christmas mass in the Arlette Gruss circus tent in Bordeaux, southwestern France, on Christmas eve, Dec 24, 2016.
Father Jean Rouet (left) celebrates Christmas mass in the Arlette Gruss circus tent in Bordeaux, southwestern France, on Christmas eve, Dec 24, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

BETHLEHEM, Palestinian Territories (AFP) - Pilgrims on Saturday (Dec 24) thronged Bethlehem for Christmas Eve as Europeans worked up some holiday spirit despite tight security in the shadow of the Berlin market attack.

Crowds of Palestinians and tourists flocked to Bethlehem's Manger Square near the Church of the Nativity, ahead of midnight mass at the site where Christians believe Jesus was born.

Some snapped selfies near a giant Christmas tree and watched the annual Scouts parade in the city, a short drive from Jerusalem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

"This is Christ's land, the land of peace," said Ramzi Abu Khalil, wearing a Santa hat.

In the northern Israeli city of Nazareth, believed to be Jesus' childhood home, more than 25,000 people took part in Christmas celebrations, police said.

Security was tight across Israel where Christmas coincided with the Jewish festival of Hanukkah.

Violence put a damper on celebrations in Bethlehem last year, as a wave of knife, gun and car-ramming attacks by Palestinians targeted Israelis and reduced sharply the number of Christmas visitors.

In Europe, many preparing to celebrate were still reeling from Monday's truck attack on the Berlin Christmas market.

German authorities were working through the holiday season hunting possible accomplices to Tunisian Anis Amri, who was killed Friday in a shootout with Italian police near Milan.

Amri, 24, is believed to have hijacked a truck and used it to mow down holiday revellers at the market on Monday, killing 12 people in an attack claimed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group.

Tunisia said on Saturday it had arrested three men suspected of links with Amri, including his nephew.

Locals and tourists in Berlin visited the Christmas market targeted in the attack, and many took a moment to quietly light a candle or lay flowers for the victims.

"It's really nice there are so many people here and it's still open," said Marianne Weile, 56, from Copenhagen.

"So even though you are really sad about what happened you can still keep Christmas. It's not like this crazy guy ruined it for everybody."

Security was also tight at Milan's cathedral, where Italian police were out in force and concrete barricades were erected around the historic Piazza del Duomo.

In France, 91,000 police, gendarmes and soldiers were deployed to guard public spaces including churches and markets.

Despite the security fears, many were braving winter temperatures to take part in traditional markets and other festivities.

Among them some 30 hardy Slovaks participated in a winter swim at Bratislava's Zlate Piesky lake, some drinking beer in the nearly freezing water.

In London, meat-lovers converged on Smithfield Market for the traditional Christmas Eve auction at butcher Harts, waving banknotes in the air as they bid on turkeys, pork cuts and rump steaks.

In debt-ridden Greece, Finance Minister Euclide Tsakalotos sent Christmas cards featuring the tight-fisted Dickensian protagonist of A Christmas Carol, Ebnezer Scrooge, in a jibe to the country's creditors.

Christians in Syria's Aleppo were preparing for celebrations after President Bashar al-Assad's forces retook full control of the city following a rebel withdrawal this week.

Members of Aleppo's Catholic minority have been preparing for the first Christmas mass in five years at the Old City's Saint Elias Cathedral, whose roof collapsed under a salvo of rocket fire.

"All our memories are here - this is where we celebrated all our feast days, our joys," said Bashir Badawi, rummaging through rubble for wood and scrap metal to make a crude Nativity scene.

"We want to transform all this destruction into something beautiful." In Bartalla, near the Iraqi city of Mosul, Christians filled the pews of the fire-scarred Mar Shimoni church for the first service since the town was retaken from ISIS who seized it in 2014.

The militants destroyed crosses at the church but volunteers worked for days to ready it for the service and a new cross was erected for the ceremony.

"I can never describe... our happiness and everything. We feel like life returned," said Nada Yaqub. "We felt that our cross is still around our necks. No one could take it from us."

The patriarch of Iraq's Chaldean Catholic Church, Louis Raphael Sako, urged international protection for Christians displaced by war so they could return to their homes.

In the mostly Catholic Philippines, a blast ripped through a police car outside a church as worshippers were arriving for a Christmas Eve mass south of Manila, wounding 13 people.

On the east coast, authorities evacuated thousands of people and shut down dozens of ports as a strong typhoon threatened to wallop the area on Christmas Day before moving to the main island of Luzon.

In Manila, gay and transgender inmates held a mock beauty pageant in one of the Philippines' most overcrowded prisons to cheers from other detainees.

Pope Francis, the leader of the of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, was to deliver his traditional "Urbi et Orbi" (To the City and The World) Christmas message from the balcony of Saint Peter's Basilica on Sunday.