BETHLEHEM, WEST BANK
— Pilgrims from around the world have converged on the West Bank town of Bethlehem for Christmas Eve celebrations hosted by the Palestinian Authority.
Palestinian boy and girl scouts kicked off Christmas celebrations with a festive march through Manger Square in Bethlehem. The square is decked out for the holiday with a giant Christmas tree, bells, lights and Palestinian flags.
The mood was more solemn inside the ancient Church of the Nativity, as thousands of pilgrims lined up to visit the grotto where tradition says Jesus Christ was born.
Shmuel Oluwa of Lagos, Nigeria said the grotto on Christmas is an experience of faith. “It’s fantastic, it’s a wonderful feeling, it’s something that every Christian should aspire to achieve. If you try and absorb the meaning of what happened there, then it’s a miraculous feeling.”
It is a good turnout this year thanks to a lull in Israel-Palestinian violence.
“For this month we are expecting 300,000 tourists," said Bethlehem’s Palestinian Mayor Vera Baboun, who told VOA there is no room at the inn.
“We have almost 4,000 rooms in Bethlehem in 33 hotels, all of them are booked. This means the city is accommodating and having a full number of tourists,” said Baboun.
Still, the Palestinians complain about the big wall Israel erected around Bethlehem about 10 years ago, following a wave of deadly suicide bombings. Residents describe the city as a big prison, but Baboun said walls cannot quell Bethlehem’s message of hope, love and peace.
“It will ever be a Merry Christmas because Christmas is joy, despite all the hardships that we go through and the siege of the city, but still Christmas is joyful,” said Baboun.
Israel and the Palestinian Authority are working together to facilitate the entry of pilgrims from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, in the spirit of Christmas goodwill.
Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad Twal arrives at the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, Dec. 24, 2013.
Girls wearing traditional Palestinian costumes take part in a Christmas procession at Manger Square in front of the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, Dec. 24, 2013.
Christian pilgrim worshippers from Nigeria pray in the Grotto of the Church of Nativity in the West Bank town of Bethlehem on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 2013.
Christian worshippers from Nigeria pray at the Church of Nativity in the West Bank town of Bethlehem on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 2013.
Visitors light candles in the Church of the Nativity ahead of Christmas in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, Dec. 23, 2013.
A nun walks inside the Church of the Nativity ahead of Christmas in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, Dec. 23, 2013.