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Bethlehem Celebrates a Peaceful Christmas

  • Robert Berger

Christian pilgrim prays during the Christmas midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, in the West Bank town of Bethlehem early Sunday, Dec. 25, 2011.

Christian pilgrim prays during the Christmas midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, in the West Bank town of Bethlehem early Sunday, Dec. 25, 2011.

Tens of thousands of Christians visited the West Bank town of Bethlehem for Christmas celebrations hosted by the Palestinian Authority.

Pilgrims from around the world braved the cold and rain to celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem. They visited the ancient Church of the Nativity, which is built above the grotto where tradition says Jesus was born.

Marilyn Bentley came from California, in the United States. “It’s wonderful to be right on site where these things happened, where it all began. It’s a very sacred place; it’s just a very deep feeling in our hearts. It’s just a reinforcement of our belief and our faith," she said.

John Howerton, from the U.S. state of Texas, said “It’s awesome. It’s like a dream. It’s so wonderful to be here and you have to keep sort of pinching yourself and say, ‘This is really, this is the place, this is where the Lord came and appeared among men.’”

It was the biggest turnout in more than a decade thanks to a long lull in West Bank violence, and that is good news for Palestinian shopkeepers in Manger Square, like Wissam Issid.

“Now is very good. Each time we have a stable political situation, we have a good tourist season," he said.

But Issid says Christmas week is not enough to make a living, and tourism has been harmed this year by the revolutions of the “Arab Spring.” He said many tourists don’t differentiate between one part of the Middle East and another.

“Some people, they don’t know where is Egypt or where is the Holy Land; so they are afraid - all the tourists - because they are a little bit afraid to come to troubled places," he said.

With all the turmoil in Arab nations, the usually volatile West Bank has been a surprising bastion of stability. And it was a peaceful Christmas in the little town where Christians believe Jesus was born more than 2,000 years ago.

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