Large numbers of visitors streamed into Bethlehem for Christmas observances, giving the West Bank town some holiday cheer for the first time in years. But Palestinians there have mixed feelings.
More than 30,000 pilgrims braved a cold and driving rain to visit the ancient grotto in the Church of the Nativity, where tradition says Jesus Christ was born. That is double the number from last year. Fears of terrorism have kept visitors away since the Palestinian uprising erupted in 2000, but a cease-fire and lull in violence prompted pilgrims to return to Bethlehem on Christmas.
"Obviously, you hear a lot about this part of the world, and [you feel] a little nervous coming in, but since we've been here, everything seems very peaceful, so far, and seems safe," said Steven Augdin who came from the U.S. state of Tennessee.
Jamie Jon Pearson, who lives in the state of Utah, wasn't worried. "It's a privilege to be here, and we only get one life in this world, and I wanted to be able to visit here at least once for Christmas. So, I guess my joy and privilege to be here overrides any fear that I have," she said
For Wanita Hoffman of Florida, the Grotto of the Nativity was an experience of faith. "Oh it was awesome, it was just unbelievable, I couldn't believe I was there," she said.
The pilgrims brought some Christmas cheer to the troubled Bethlehem economy, which depends on tourism. "This year, the situation is better than in the past years. I think it is the best situation for Christmas from even five years," said Nadia Hazboun runs a souvenir shop in Manger Square.
But Palestinians have mixed feelings. While they were glad to see the tourists, they used the international spotlight to express frustration over Israel's security barrier that is going up on the outskirts on town. Bethlehem Mayor Victor Batarseh told VOA he feels "very sad about it. It's a disgrace for the whole world community to let this wall go up in this way, surrounding the city of Jesus Christ, surrounding the city of Bethlehem. Bethlehem city now is a big prison."
Israel says the barrier keeps suicide bombers out of the country. In his Christmas message, the Roman Catholic Patriarch, who is a Palestinian, said the Holy Land needs bridges, not walls.