More than 2,000 Indian migrant workers in the Holy Land have held a pilgrimage from Jerusalem to Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity as part of their preparations for Christmas.
The pilgrims walked the five miles (8 kilometers) between the cities on December 13, praying the rosary for peace in Palestine and Israel, the Catholic News Agency reports.
The Church of the Nativity straddles the site that is traditionally considered located over a cave that marks the birthplace of Jesus.
Each year the Indian Chaplaincy in the Holy Land holds the pilgrimage and this year's comes at a time of simmering tensions between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank.
"It has become an annual event in the life of the Indian community in the Holy Land to prepare spiritually for the birth of our Saviour Jesus Christ and especially to pray for lasting peace and harmony in the region," Father Tojy Jose, a Franciscan who is head of the Indian Chaplaincy in the Holy Land, told CNA.
"The pilgrimage is an expression of love and devotion to the Baby Jesus, and we trek on the trail of the Holy Family."
Jose thanked the Indian expatriate community working in Israel which gathered at the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem's Old City at 9 a.m.
On December 7, hundreds of Palestinians and pilgrims had gathered for the lighting ceremony for the 15 meter (50 foot) Christmas tree in Bethlehem's Manger Square, The Jerusalem Post reported
Bishop William Shomali, an auxiliary bishop of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem, blessed the pilgrimage in the presence of Jesuit priest David Neuhause, patriarchal vicar for Hebrew-speaking communities; Father Guy Tardivy, the Dominican prior of St. Stephen's Monastery; and Dominic Mendonsa, another Dominican.
"There is a need for healing and reconciliation for lasting peace in the land," Bishop Shomali said.
He praised the migrant community, noting "the Indian faithful are an example to the Christians in the Holy Land in their practice of the Catholic faith."
The pilgrims sang carols and waving thousands of colourful flags and placards, many of them in Santa hats.
"The Santa cap-clad singing and dancing stole the attention of the Israelis and Palestinians on the road to Bethlehem, communicating to them the message of peace," Jose said.
When they arrived at the Church of the Nativity, Jose explained it was a special biblical opportunity, reflecting on the Holy Family's trip to the same location more than 2,000 years ago for the birth of Jesus.
"Re-living and reflecting on this experience galvanizes our faith, unity, and solidarity," he said.
The procession was followed by Masses said in the Konkani and Malayalam languages at St. Catherine's church and at the Salesian monastery chapel in Bethlehem.
Konkani is the official language of Goa, while Malayalam is that of Kerala.
Both of these Indian states have high numbers of Christians, and many of those served by the Indian Chaplaincy in the Holy Land have roots in these states.