Jerusalem (AFP) - A wooden fragment said to be from the crib of the infant Jesus arrived in Jerusalem on Friday on its way back to Bethlehem after a millenium-long absence.
The relic, housed in Rome since the seventh century, was presented to the Franciscan custodians of the Holy Land at a mass in the Notre Dame Catholic centre opposite the walls of Jerusalem's Old city.
It will be taken to Bethlehem on Saturday, in time for the traditional lighting of the Christmas tree in Manger Square.
The city, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, is believed to have been the birthplace of Jesus.
The chief custodian for the Holy Land, Francesco Patton, said that the relic was sent from Bethlehem to Rome around the year 640 as gift to Pope Theodore I from Sophronius, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem.
"The pope in Rome was Theodore, and he had Palestinian roots," Patton told AFP after the Friday morning mass.
Now, over a thousand years later it is returning to the city where it will be installed "forever" in Saint Catherine's church, adjoining the Basilica of the Nativity, he said.
"This is the first time that a the wooden part of the manger comes back," Patton added.
"Of course not the entire wooden structure because it is very fragile and it is impossible to transport from Rome to here."
The Catholic church does not speak of worshipping relics, which would be a form of idolatry, but rather of venerating them.
"Of course we don't venerate the relic because it is a piece of wood. We venerate the relic because the relic reminds us of the mystery of incarnation, to the fact that the son of God was born of Mary in Bethlehem more than 2,000 years ago," Patton said.
Bethlehem has planned celebrations stretching until Christmas for the homecoming of the relic, a sliver of wood about a centimetre wide and 2.5 centimetres long.
During a visit to the Vatican for Middle East peace talks in December 2018, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas asked Pope Francis to repatriate the crib fragment and his request was granted, said Palestinian envoy to the Holy See, Issa Kassissieh.
"We are thankful and President Abbas is thankful to his Holiness for giving us this precious gift as a sign of peace and hope," Kassissieh told AFP.
After mass in the intimate chapel, attended by about 80 people, a handful of the faithful knelt one by one in front of the fragment in its ornate reliquary.
The Franciscan custodians' website says that during its time in Rome the relic was visited by "very large number of pilgrims from all over the world" and is expected to attract many more to its home in Bethlehem.