Manger relic from time of Jesus birth returns to Bethlehem from Rome

(Photo: REUTERS / Ammar Awad)Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa (C), custodian of the Holy Land, ceremonially launches the beginning of the Christmas season at the Church of the Nativity, the site revered as the birthplace of Jesus, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem November 24, 2012.

After more than 1,000 years in Europe, a fragment of wood believed to have formed part of Jesus' manger has been returned to Bethlehem.

Pope Francis ordered the return of the thumb-sized relic from Rome's Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore as a gift, BBC reported.

Before making it way to Bethlehem, the relic was put on display briefly for the public at the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center, to coincide with the start of Christmas celebrations there.

The relic had been in Rome since the 7th Century.

The relic, encased in an ornate stand, was welcomed to Bethlehem Nov. 30 by a procession of marching bands.

It was taken to the Church of St Catherine, next to the Church of the Nativity where tradition says Jesus was born.

Some Christians believe the tiny piece of wood formed part of the crib that Jesus lay in after being born.

"It is an historic move. It returns to its original place, and it will be a factor of attraction to believers from inside Palestine and to tourists from all over the world," Amira Hanania, a member of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Higher Committee of Churches Affairs.

"To celebrate Christmas with the presence of part of the manger in which Jesus Christ was born will be a magnificent and huge event," she was quoted as saying by the Jerusalem Post.

The wood piece, just a few centimeters long, was sent in the 7th Century by the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Saint Sophronius, as a gift to Pope Theodore I.

It was handed over this weekend to the custodian of the Holy Land churches Francesco Patton, who said it brought "great honor to believers and pilgrims in the area."

Pope Francis entrusted the 2,000 year old miniature relic stemming from manger "in which Baby Jesus was laid," with the Custos of the Holy Land for the Catholic Church.

It was a gift - similarly to how the artifact was originally gifted by Saint Sophronius to Pope Theodore I, 1,400 years ago said the Post.

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