BETHLEHEM, WEST BANK: A tiny wooden relic believed to have been part of Jesus’ manger has returned to its permanent home in the biblical city of Bethlehem 1,400 years after it was sent to Rome as a gift to the pope.
Sheathed in an ornate case, cheerful crowds greeted the relic on Saturday with much fanfare before it entered the Franciscan Church of St. Catherine next to the Church of the Nativity, the West Bank holy site where tradition says Jesus was born.
The return of the relic by the Vatican coincides with Advent, a four-week period leading up to Christmas.
The Palestinians welcomed the relic as a spirit-lifting occasion as Bethlehem braced for Christmas, where pilgrims from around the world flock to the city in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
The wood piece, just a few centimeters 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 honor to believers and pilgrims in the area.”
The provenance of ancient relics is often questionable. Still, they are revered by the Christian faithful, among them the coachloads of pilgrims who squeeze through a narrow sandstone entrance in the Church of the Nativity to visit the birth grotto that is its centerpiece.
According to the Custos of the Holy Land for the Catholic church, Francesco Patton, the relic dates back more than 2,000 years and was sent to the Vatican in the 7th century.
Encased in a silver-colored ornamental table-top stand, the relic was unveiled to the public on Friday at the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center, before it was taken to Bethlehem on Saturday.
A procession of marching bands greeted the relic as it arrived in Bethlehem. It was placed in Saint Catherine’s Church, at the Church of the Nativity compound in Manger Square.
“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 Gacaman, 53, a Bethlehem homemaker, as she stood outside the church.
Others were a little let down.
“It’s a small piece, we thought it would be a bigger piece,” said Sandy Shahin Hijazeen, 32. “When we heard that the manger is coming back we thought it would be the whole manger, but then we saw it.”
Bethlehem, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, is usually particularly busy ahead of Christmas on Dec. 25, with tourists and pilgrims flocking to the Biblical city. Christians make up around 1 percent of the Palestinian population in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.