Thousands of people have attended Christmas Eve celebrations at the birthplace of Christianity in Bethlehem.
Christmas Eve began with festive marches through Manger Square by Palestinian boy and girl scouts. The celebrations took place outside the ancient Church of the Nativity, where tradition says Jesus was born.
Bethlehem is in the Palestinian-ruled West Bank, and religion mixed with nationalism. Manger Square was decked out with Christmas trees and lights and Palestinian flags.
Religious observances began with the arrival of the Latin Patriarch, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in the Holy Land.
Priests and monks in white robes held a procession into the Church of the Nativity leaving a trail of fragrant incense. Pilgrims from around the world looked on, including Paul Edelman from the U.S. state of Iowa. "Just the festivities, the idea that this is the birthplace of Christ, and you get to see all the historic places and share it with people from around the world; it's a very nice experience," he said.
Palestinian police with assault rifles patrolled the streets but the atmosphere was calm. A lull in violence brought a big turnout of tourists; some 70,000 are expected to visit Bethlehem this week.
Palestinian shopkeeper Nadia Hazboun said the security situation in the West Bank is much better than a few years ago, when there was fighting with Israel and militants ruled the streets. "It was bad, now it is good. I told you, before anybody take the law in his (own) hands. But now the law (is) with the police. We have security, we have calm, we have now the best situation in Bethlehem," he said.
At the same time, the Palestinians complain that Israel's separation wall at the entrance to Bethlehem casts a dark shadow over Christmas. Israel erected the wall to stop a wave of suicide bombers, but Bethlehem Mayor Victor Batarseh says the town of Jesus' birth has become a prison. "We need bridges of love and understanding between the people, not walls of hatred," he said.
Batarseh, who is a Christian, said Bethlehem still brings hope at Christmas, with its eternal message of peace on earth, goodwill toward men.