BETHLEHEM, West Bank -- A tiny wooden relic that some Christians believe to be part of Jesus' manger arrived late last month in its permanent home in the biblical city of Bethlehem 1,400 years after it was sent to Rome as a gift to the pope.
Cheerful crowds greeted the ornately encased relic on Nov. 30 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 thumb-sized wooden relic by the Vatican was a spirit-lifting moment for Palestinians, a small minority of whom are Christian. It coincides with Advent, a four-week period leading up to Christmas. Troubled Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank is preparing for the holy day, where pilgrims from around the world flock to.
Brother Francesco Patton, the custodian of the Franciscan order in the Holy Land, said Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had asked Pope Francis to borrow the entire manger, but the pope decided to send a tiny portion of it to stay permanently in Bethlehem.
"It's a great joy" that the piece returns to its original place, Patton said, according to Wafa, the official Palestinian news agency.
A wooden structure that Christians believe was part of the manger where Jesus was born was sent by St. Sophronius, the patriarch of Jerusalem, to Pope Theodore I in the 640s, around the time of the Muslim conquest of the Holy Land.