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Pilgrims Converge on Bethlehem for Christmas

Musicians perform on stage in Manger Square, outside the Church of the Nativity, the site revered as the birthplace of Jesus, on Christmas eve in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, December 24, 2012.
Thousands of pilgrims have converged on the West Bank town of Bethlehem for Christmas celebrations hosted by the Palestinian Authority.

​The atmosphere was festive as Palestinian boy and girl scouts kicked off Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem with marches through Manger Square. Thousands of local Palestinians and pilgrims from around the world looked on, as the scouts marched past the ancient Church of the Nativity.

Manger Square reflected a mixture of religion and Palestinian nationalism. Decorations included a giant Christmas tree, lights and bells, and Palestinian flags.

Nick Thompson, from New Zealand, said Bethlehem is not what he expected.

“I find it quite difficult to make the connection between this place and the place of Jesus' birth," said Thompson. "You’ve really got to do some quite hard imagining to sort of think back two millennia and imagine what this might have been like.”

The atmosphere was more solemn at the Grotto of the Nativity, where tradition says Jesus was born. Marcus Mundy came from Philadelphia in the United States.

“I’ve been to places like Italy and Paris where there’s gigantic cathedrals, but there’s something very special about Bethlehem since this is where it all started," Mundy said. "This is where the first Christmas was. It’s like very humble, just a very interesting feel. I really like it.”

The Palestinian Authority, which administers the West Bank, rolled out the red carpet for visitors. But tourism is down because of last month's conflict in the Gaza Strip between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that rules the Strip.

Bethlehem taxi driver Nayef Asakra said, “The tourists - they are afraid to come when they heard about the problems here or some conflicts happen. Of course, the tourists are afraid to come.”

Some 75,000 tourists are expected in Bethlehem this Christmas, 25 percent fewer than last year.

This is also the first Christmas since the United Nations vote last month to upgrade Palestine to a non-member observer state. But Asakra said, “We haven’t [seen] anything changed. Until now everything the same. Not anything. You don’t feel that something has changed on the ground. Nothing. Because Israel controls everything."

Palestinians said the best example of this is Israel’s separation wall that surrounds Bethlehem. Israel says the barrier keeps suicide bombers out, but Palestinians says the wall has turned the town of Bethlehem into a big prison.