Woman knocks down Pope at Christmas Eve Mass

A woman jumped the barriers in St. Peter's Basilica and knocked down Pope Benedict XVI as he walked down the main aisle to begin Christmas Eve Mass on Thursday.
Pope Benedict XVI is helped to his seat after being knocked down by a woman who jumped barriers as he was arriving for the traditional Christmas Eve Mass in St. Peter's Basilica on Thursday. ((Gregorio Borgia/Associated Press))

A woman jumped the barriers in St. Peter's Basilica and knocked down Pope Benedict XVI as he walked down the main aisle to begin Christmas Eve Mass on Thursday.

The 82-year-old Pope quickly got up and was unhurt, according to the Rev. Ciro Benedettini, a Vatican spokesman.

He said the woman also knocked down Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, who was taken to hospital for a checkup.

Footage aired on Italy's RAI state TV showed a woman dressed in a red sweater vaulting over the wooden barriers and rushing the Pope before being swarmed by bodyguards.

The incident occurred as the Pope's procession was making its way toward the main altar and shocked gasps rang out through the crowd that packed the basilica. The procession came to a halt and security rushed to the trouble spot.

"During the procession an unstable person jumped a barrier and knocked down the Holy Father," Benedettini told The Associated Press by telephone. "[The Pope] quickly got up and continued the procession."

Mary Beth Burns, a Texan visiting Italy with her family on a religious pilgrimage for Christmas, was filming the procession when the commotion began.

Burns said the security guards immediately pulled the woman to the ground and the Pope tumbled with them.

Benedict lost his miter and his staff in the fall. He remained on the ground for a few seconds before being helped back up by attendants. At that point a few shouts of "viva il papa!" (long live the pope!) rang out, followed by cheers from the faithful.

After the incident, Benedict, flanked by tense bodyguards, resumed his walk to the main altar. He did appear somewhat shaken and leaned heavily on aides and an armrest as he sat down in his chair.

The Pope made no reference to the incident as the service started.

On Christmas Day, the Pope will deliver his traditional Urbi et Orbi speech, Latin for "To the city and the world," from the basilica's balcony. On Sunday, he plans to share lunch with the homeless at a soup kitchen near the Vatican.

Festivities begin in Bethlehem

Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal, centre, arrived in the West Bank town of Bethlehem on Thursday. ((Nasser Shiyoukhi/Associated Press))
The top Christian cleric in Jerusalem and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas joined thousands of pilgrims gathered in Bethlehem on Thursday to celebrate Christmas.

Colourful balloons, light decorations and a synth-rock band performing holiday songs added cheer to the Christmas festivities.

Thousands had arrived in Manger Square, including tourists from around the world, ahead of Abbas and Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal.

Hanna Pioli, 23, and her sister Katherine, 25, were spending the holiday far from their hometown of Salt Lake City, Utah. The sisters miss celebrating a "white Christmas" at home, Katherine Pioli said, but still thought Bethlehem was the best place for Christians to spend the day.

Jeffrey Lynch, 36, a sanitation worker from New York City, was taking a tour through the Church of the Nativity, the fourth-century Crusader-era structure built atop the grottos that mark the spot believed to be the birthplace of Jesus.

"It's a miracle being here on Christmas Eve. It's a lifetime opportunity. I wish everybody could be here," he said.

Earlier in the day, Twal led the annual procession from Jerusalem to the West Bank town of Bethlehem, Jesus's traditional birthplace. During the trip, he called for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

"The wish that we most want, we most hope for, is not coming. We want peace," Twal said after he passed into Bethlehem.

"We don't have a shortage of food, we don't need aid," he added. "All we want is peace, and that is the wish that still has not been answered."

Israeli soldiers and police in jeeps escorted Twal and his convoy as he entered the Palestinian territory. They passed through a massive steel gate near the heavily guarded barrier separating the West Bank from Israel.

"We want freedom of movement, we don't want walls," Twal said after passing through the barrier. "We don't want separation fences. We hope that things will become more normal for us."

Violence, tension in the West Bank

Security officers for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas stand guard outside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem on Thursday. ((Oded Balilty/Associated Press))

Others in the region were in no mood to celebrate.

An Israeli man was shot and killed by Palestinian gunmen in the West Bank on Thursday, a few hours after Twal had passed through.

Israeli Radio identified the man as a resident of a nearby settlement, and a little-known Palestinian faction took responsibility in an email sent to journalists.

There was also little cheer at a tent camp about 350 kilometres southwest of Islamabad, Pakistan, erected to house Christians left homeless by a rampage of looting and arson by Muslims in August.

The Christians say they have received text messages warning them to expect a "special Christmas present." They're afraid their tents will be set ablaze or their church services bombed.

"Last year I celebrated Christmas full of joy," said Irfan Masih, cradling his young son among the canvas shelters and open ditches of the camp. But now "the fear that we may again be attacked is in our hearts."

With files from The Associated Press