Thousands celebrate a merry Christmas in Bethlehem
Manger Square packed as thousands of foreign and local Christians mark Christmas in town where Jesus is believed to have been born • Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas attends Christmas Eve mass at the Church of the Nativity.
News Agencies and Israel Hayom Staff
Oh, come all ye faithful. Manger Square in front of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
Photo credit: AP
Thousands of Christians from across the world packed Manger Square in Bethlehem on Monday to celebrate the birth of Jesus in the ancient Judean town where it is believed he was born.
The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal, led the Christmas Eve mass at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, thought by millions of Christians to be located at the exact spot of Jesus' birth.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad were among those at the mass.
The Palestinian Tourism Ministry said tourism numbers had increased 20 percent in the last year, with 15,000 foreign pilgrims expected in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve and 10,000 on Christmas Day.
Video: Christmas Mass in Bethlehem
On Monday, the mood in Bethlehem was joyous under sunny skies, with children dressed in holiday finery or in Santa costumes, and marching bands playing in the streets.
After nightfall, a packed Manger Square, resplendent with strings of lights, decorations and a 17-meter (55-foot) Christmas tree, took on a festival atmosphere, as pilgrims mixed with locals.
A choral group from the Baptist Church in Jerusalem performed carols on one side of the square, handing out sheets of lyrics and encouraging others to sing along with songs such as "We Wish You A Merry Christmas."
Vendors sold balloons, cotton candy and corn on the cob, bands played Christmas songs and tourists packed cafés that are quiet most of the rest of the year.
Devout Christians said it was a moving experience to be so close to the origins of their faith.
"It's a special feeling to be here, it's an encounter with my soul and God," said Joanna Kurczewska, a professor at Warsaw University in Poland, who was on her second visit to Bethlehem.
Pastor Al Mucciarone, 61, from Short Hills, New Jersey, agreed.
"We come here to celebrate Jesus. This is a very important town. Great things come from small events. The son of God was born in this small village. We hope all will follow Jesus," he said.
Audra Kasparian, 45, from Salt Lake City, Utah, called her visit to Bethlehem "a life event to cherish forever. It is one of those events that is great to be a part of."
During his visit to Bethlehem, Abbas said, "Peace will prevail from the birthplace of Jesus, and we wish everyone peace and happiness," according to the official Palestinian Wafa news agency.
In recent years, tourists and pilgrims who were scared away by the violence of the Second Intifada at the start of the last decade have been returning in larger numbers.
Overall, there are only about 50,000 Christians in the West Bank, less than 3% of the population, the result of a lower birthrate and increased emigration. Bethlehem's Christians make up only a third of the city's residents, down from 75% a few decades ago.
Officials say all 34 hotels in Bethlehem were fully booked for the Christmas season, including 13 new ones built this year.
Israel turned Bethlehem over to Palestinian civil control a few days before Christmas in 1995.