Thousands of pilgrims, tourists and local Christians gathered in the biblical West Bank town of Bethlehem on Saturday to begin Christmas Eve celebrations in the traditional birthplace of Jesus.
Visitors gathered near the 50-foot (15-meter) Christmas tree at Manger Square Saturday morning taking pictures and enjoying the sunshine.
The main event will be Midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity, built over the location where Jesus is believed to have been born.
Jerusalem's Latin patriarch in Bethlehem (Photo: Reuters)
Israel's Tourism Ministry said it expects 90,000 tourists to visit the holy land for the holiday. Ministry spokeswoman Lydia Weitzman said that number is the same as last year's record-breaking tally, but was surprisingly high considering the turmoil in the Arab world and the US and European economic downturns.
Bethlehem on Christmas Eve (Photo: AFP)
Bethlehem Mayor Victor Batarseh said he hopes this year's celebrations will bring Palestinians closer to their dream of statehood. With peace talks stalled with Israel, Palestinians this year made a unilateral bid for recognition at the United Nations and were accepted as a member by UNESCO, the UN cultural agency.
"We are celebrating this Christmas hoping that in the near future we'll get our right to self-determination our right to establish our own democratic, secular Palestinian state on the Palestinian land. That is why this Christmas is unique," Batarseh told The Associated Press.
IDF eases travel restrictions for holiday
Bethlehem is urrounded on three sides by a barrier built to stop Palestinian militants from attacking Israel. Palestinians say the barrier damaged their economy.
Decorated tree in Bethlehem (Photo: AFP)
Earlier this week, the IDF announced a series of measures aimed to ease the travel for Palestinian Christians. As part of the "trust-building" effort, pilgrims of all ages were to be issued permits to travel from the West Bank to Israel, and up to 400 were to be permitted to leave the country through Ben Gurion Airport for the holiday.
Moreover, up to 500 Christians from the Gaza Strip, under the age of 16 and over the age of 45, were to be allowed to travel to Israel and the West Bank for religious ceremonies and to visit family.
The number of Christians in the West Bank is on the decline. While some leave for economic reasons, many speak of persecution by the Muslim majority, but always anonymously, fearing retribution.
Christians have even lost their majority in Bethlehem, where more than two-thirds of the some 50,000 Palestinian residents are now Muslim.
The biblical town was bustling on Saturday, however, with Christian tourists and pilgrims.
"This is my first time in Bethlehem and it's an electrifying feeling to be here at the birthplace of Jesus during Christmas," said 49-year-old Abraham Rai from Karla, India.
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