Thousands Visit Bethlehem to Begin Christmas Celebrations

BethlehemThousands 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.

Pictured: A
Christian pilgrim prays inside the Church of Nativity, believed by many
to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, in the West Bank town of
Bethlehem, Saturday, Dec. 24, 2011. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)


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.

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 U.S. and European
economic downturns.

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 U.N.
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.

Bethlehem
is today surrounded on three sides by a barrier Israel built to stop
Palestinian militants from attacking during a wave of assaults in the
last decade. Palestinians say the barrier damaged their economy.

Latin
Patriarch Fouad Twal, the Roman Catholic Church’s head clergyman in the
Holy Land, crossed through a massive metal gate in the barrier, in a
traditional midday procession from Jerusalem on Saturday.

“We
ask the child of Bethlehem to give us the peace we are in desperate
need for, peace in the Middle East, peace in the holy land, peace in the
heart and in our families,” Twal said.

The
number of Christians in the West Bank is on the decline. While some
leave for economic reasons, others talk of discrimination and harassment
by the Muslim majority.

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.

Source: Dalia Namari, The Associated Press