The site of Christ’s birth may well have been a cave, much like the cave in which his body was buried, or a stable, among the animals. In either case, it was a place provided by others. He entered the world as he left it, without wealth or status. Map.
The Church of the Nativity and Church of St. Catherine, the Mosque of Omar and the Palestinian Peace Center surround the Square. Manger Square; which was renovated in 1998-99; is now relieved from traffic and is only intended for pedestrians.
It is transformed to a meeting place for the local residents, and for the pilgrims and tourists the only one, wanted for a long time. The new character is that of peace, calmness, fresh air and dignity. Trees with low broad crowns give shade and underneath it there are benches and playing fountains.
The rows of trees are called Celtis Australis, in Arabic Maish, which grow wild in Palestine. The benches are made by a local carpenter. The fountains are made of solid cubic stones with continuously circulating water pouring over them.
The stone paving is made of white yellowish Naqab marble with blue contributions. In the center of the open space a pattern of Arabic origin is discretely inlaid with big stone settings. When the twilight sets, the pattern is transformed into a lattice of luminous points. The trees are lit up from below, creating a green canopy for the social life underneath.
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 part of Operation Defensive Shield, a number of locals (some of whom were armed) and peace activists took refuge in 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 13 militants to be sent via Cyprus to various European counties and another 26 to be sent to Gaza. The rest were set free. The IDF stated that 40 explosive devices were found and removed from the compound after the standoff was concluded.