Manger Square (Arabic:ميدان المهد) is an important city square in the center of Bethlehem. It takes its name from the manger where Jesus is said to have been born which, according to Christian dogma, is in the Church of the Nativity, possibly the oldest existing church in the world, which surrounds the square. Also around Manger Square is the Mosque of Omar (the city's only mosque) and the Palestinian Peace Center. Streets with names connected to Jesus, including Star Street and Nativity Street, lead into the square.
In 1998-1999 the square was renovated to relieve traffic congestion and currently is pedestrian only. It is mainly a meeting place for locals and for the town's many pilgrims. There are rows of Celtis australis that provide shade to its people with benches and fountains made of white yellowish Naqab marble below.
Manger Square is a focal point for all of the Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem, with a giant Christmas tree crowning the square. It is the traditional spot where locals and pilgrims sing Christmas carols before the midnight mass at the Church of the Nativity. The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem and the Armenian Apostolic Church follow the Julian Calendar liturgically, whereas the Roman Catholic Church follows the modern Gregorian Calendar. Thus Christmas Eve services for the Eastern and Western confessions are held on different days. The Roman Catholic Church celebrates the Nativity on December 25; the Orthodox celebrations are on January 7.
Church of the Nativity siege
In May 2002, during an Israel Defense Forces raid on the square, a number of locals (some of whom were armed) occupied the Church of the Nativity. It became the site of a five-week stand-off. The number of people inside was estimated between 120 and 240. It was alleged by Palestinians that several Palestinians inside the church compound were shot dead by Israeli snipers during the siege. The siege ended with an agreement for thirteen militants to be sent via Cyprus to various European counties and another twenty-six to be sent to Gaza. The rest were set free. The IDF stated that forty explosive devices were found and removed from the compound after the standoff was concluded.
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