Thousands of pilgrims joined local Palestinians in celebrating Christmas Eve in the West Bank town of Bethlehem. As Robert Berger reports for VOA from Bethlehem, the observances were more cheerful than in previous years.
Palestinian boy and girl scouts paraded through Manger Square in Bethlehem, kicking off Christmas celebrations. Playing drums and bagpipes, they marched past the Church of the Nativity, which is believed to be the birthplace of Jesus. Security was tight. Dozens of Palestinian police patrolled the streets, some armed with assault rifles.
Then the Latin Patriarch arrived.
Dressed in purple robes, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in the Holy Land is leading a solemn procession into the church of the Nativity. He is followed by priests dressed in white who are chanting the Christmas liturgy. A big crowd is looking on including local Palestinians and pilgrims from around the world.
After staying away for many years because of Israeli-Palestinian violence, pilgrims returned this year.
"It's a more joyful Christmas. We have more tourists, we have more pilgrims coming to the city of Bethlehem, twice as much as last year," said Bethleham Mayor Victor Batarseh to VOA. "All the hotels are booked. I think this Christmas brings more joy to all the citizens of Bethlehem."
The mayor attributes the change to a lull in violence and the revival of the peace process.
Anne Nicholson, from the American state of Alabama, said the Prince of Peace is what Bethlehem is all about.
"My heart is just bursting with joy to be here. Honored, privileged, humbled. I've heard just about every language you can hear spoken today," said Nicholson. "And the common denominator is the love of Christ that has brought people from all over the world to this place, to be in a spot that we know that Christ was born here."
Palestinians complain that Israel's separation barrier ringing Bethlehem has turned the city into a big prison. But on this Christmas, at least, they welcomed in the outside world to celebrate.