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Pilgrims, Tourists Descend on Bethlehem for Christmas Celebrations


A Christian pilgrim lines up to go inside the Grotto, at the Church of Nativity, believed by many to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, Dec. 24, 2011.

A Christian pilgrim lines up to go inside the Grotto, at the Church of Nativity, believed by many to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, Dec. 24, 2011.

Thousands of pilgrims and tourists began arriving in Bethlehem Saturday, to spend Christmas in the town believed to be Jesus' birthplace.

Christmas Eve celebrations in the West Bank town culminate with a celebration of Midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity.

The Holy Land's top Roman Catholic cleric, Latin Patriarch Fuad Twal, will lead the mass at the church built over the the spot where it is believed Mary gave birth to Jesus.

Bethlehem Mayor Victor Batarseh says this Christmas carries special meaning for Palestinians as their bid for statehood moves forward.

"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," he said.

Early Saturday, visitors gathered around a giant Christmas tree at the town's central Manger Square, while a marching band performed.

One German tourist said seeing Jesus' birthplace is important to her and her family.

"It's really special, I mean, it's where the story began," she said. "And for me it's also kind of special for my family because my parents were here and my grandmother was here so it's special to be here.''

Meanwhile, Bethlehem police were patrolling the once restive city, which lies about eight kilometers south of Jerusalem in the West Bank.

Bethlehem's police chief says that his forces are preparing for thousands of people to descend on the city in the next day.

"Today we and the ministry of tourism are expecting more than 300,000 pilgrims and tourists," Khalid Tamimi said.

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