Thousands flock to Bethlehem for Christmas festivities

Friday, December 24, 2010

BETHLEHEM - Thousands of Christian faithful from around the world converged Friday on Bethlehem to celebrate Christmas in the town where, according to the Biblical account, Jesus was born.

The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal, arrived in the city in the afternoon, at the end of the traditional procession from Jerusalem.

The first part of the south-bound procession was by motorcade, but he entered Bethlehem’s Manger Square on foot, accompanied by Boy Scouts from Christian schools and youth movements.

Wearing a purple robe, he waved to pilgrims as he made his way across the square to the Church of the Nativity.

The square had been packed since mid-morning with pilgrims, and local police even had to close some of its entrances because of the crush.

Palestinian Tourism Minister Khaloud Deibis told the Ma’an news agency that estimates showed that 90,000 pilgrims and tourists would arrive in the town by the end of the festive season, compared to 60,000 last year. Unlike in previous years, most of them are staying overnight in the city, and Bethlehem’s 24 hotels are fully booked.

As the patriarch, the highest-ranking Catholic cleric in the Holy Land, entered the square, a local muezzin called Muslims to prayer.

In the evening, choirs sang carols in Manger Square, taking advantage of the unseasonably warm weather. The celebrations were expected to peak at midnight (2200 GMT), when Patriarch Twal will conduct mass in Saint Catherine Church, the Roman Catholic section of the Church of the Nativity, built according to tradition on the site of the stable where Jesus was born.

“I come here every Christmas,” said 72-year-old Philip Salsa, from the nearby village of Beit Sahour. “I see more people every year, and the atmosphere is more festive.”

Although a Muslim, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas plans to arrive in Bethlehem from his Ramallah headquarters in the afternoon to attend the mass - a precedent set by his predecessor, Yasser Arafat.

Despite being surrounded by a high wall, which forms part of Israel’s West Bank barrier, Bethlehem is packed this year.

Palestinian tourism officials estimate that by year’s end up to two million people will have visited the southern West Bank town.

Israel issued permits for 7,000 Palestinian Christians from the West Bank to visit Bethlehem and allowed several hundred members of Gaza’s tiny Christian community to attend the festivities in the Biblical city.

Some 200 Christians from Arab states with whom Israel does not have ties are also allowed to attend the celebrations.

Once a majority of more than 90 percent in Bethlehem, Christians now make up little more than a third of the town’s Palestinian population, and many of the local onlookers during the celebrations are Muslims.

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