(QHA) -

Pope Francis held his first Christmas Eve mass in the Vatican on Tuesday by highlighting the role played by humble shepherds in the Nativity, as thousands flocked to the historic site of Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem, AFP reports.

At the service in St Peter’s Basilica, the 77-year-old leader of the world’s Catholics said local shepherds were the first to witness the holy birth “because they were among the last, the outcast”.

Francis has repeatedly warned about rising rates of anti-Christian violence, and he spoke at a time when Christians from ancient communities in Syria are fleeing its civil war. Others are meanwhile struggling to rebuild after the devastating typhoon that struck the Philippines this year.

In Europe, Christmas Eve mass in a church nestled in the French Alps came to an abrupt end Tuesday when part of the ceiling fell down on the priest’s head. The discovery of an unexploded World War II bomb in the Belgian city of Ghent also spoiled celebrations.

Thousands of pilgrims and tourists made their way past Israel’s controversial separation wall to reach the Palestinian hilltop town, where snow remains on the ground from a rare winter blizzard this month.

Meanwhile in space, astronauts from US space agency NASA completed a rare Christmas Eve spacewalk to make repairs on the International Space Station.