BETHLEHEM: Crowds of tourists and Palestinians revelled in a festive mood in Bethlehem on Friday, celebrating Christmas in the town where Christians believe Jesus was born.
In Manger Square, children clutched cartoon character balloons and enjoyed pink candyfloss, while their parents took pictures of the fairy lights that festooned trees and street lights around the square.
A record number of tourists and pilgrims have flocked the occupied West Bank town in the last two years after nearly a decade dominated by fears of violence that left Bethlehem virtually deserted.
Inside and outside the Church of the Nativity, a long line of pilgrims waited to enter the grotto where Mary is said to have given birth after she and Joseph could not find any room at the inn.
Next door, at the St. Catherine’s Church where midnight mass will be celebrated, Palestinians and visitors sat in the pews, some silently reflecting, while others read the Bible or tourist guides.
Crowds also lined Bethlehem’s Star Street and Manger Square to watch the traditional Christmas Eve procession that brought Latin Patriarch Fuad Twal into the centre of the city.
“It’s amazing. To be in the birthplace of Christ on Christmas, you can’t get better than that,” said Brady MacCarl,
Charlene, an American from California who declined to give her last name, said it was a religious experience for her to be in Bethlehem on the day Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus.
“It’s a crazy experience and it’s probably one that will only happen once in our lives,” she told AFP.
Troupes of scouts from Christian towns and villages across the West Bank marched through the city playing bagpipes, but a group from Gaza was denied Israeli permission to come, Palestinian Authority officials said.
Twal held prayers at St Catherine’s Friday afternoon ahead of midnight mass, which was expected to include a message of hope for peace but also sound a sombre tone after the October 31 massacre of worshippers in a Baghdad church.
In a pre-Christmas message, he offered solidarity to Iraqi Christians, who have been the target of repeated bloodshed, including the church attack that killed 44 worshippers and two priests.
“We were shocked and troubled by the massacre of Christians in Baghdad in the church,” Twal said.
“For the Iraqi Christians, we are with them in this bad situation.” He also lamented the failure of renewed direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, but urged the faithful not to give up hope.
“We continue to believe that on both sides, and in the international community, there are men of goodwill who will work and put their energies together in their commitment for peace,” he said.
“We believe that nothing is impossible with God.”
At least 90,000 people are expected to flood into the town over the Christmas period, according to Palestinian Authority figures.
Bethlehem sits behind a major Israeli checkpoint and the controversial security wall.
But unlike in years past, when the spectre of unrest and violence kept tourists away and those who visited spent the night in Israel instead, Bethlehem’s 24 hotels were all fully booked.
The Christmas season will cap a year of unprecedented tourism for Bethlehem and the Palestinian territories, where visitor revenues are sorely needed.
Tens of thousands of Palestinians from the West Bank and Arab Israelis were also expected in Bethlehem, along with several hundred people from the tiny Christian community in Gaza who were able to secure rare Israeli entry permits for the holiday. – APP