Clergymen attend Christmas celebrations at Manger Square outside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Dec. 24, 2018.
Clergymen attend Christmas celebrations at Manger Square outside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Dec. 24, 2018.

BETHLEHEM - Christmas celebrations are under way in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, hosted by the Palestinian Authority.

It was a festive kickoff to Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem, as Palestinian boy and girl scouts held a colorful march through Manger Square. They faced a giant Christmas tree in front of the Church of the Nativity, what is traditionally considered the birthplace of Jesus.

The parade took place near a big sign that read, "Pray for the freedom of Palestine," as local Palestinians and tourists looked on.

Members of a Palestinian marching band parade duri
Members of a Palestinian marching band parade during Christmas celebrations at Manger Square outside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Dec. 24, 2018.

Pilgrims came from around the world to visit the ancient Grotto of the Nativity.

"Realizing and imagining that 2,000 years ago Jesus was born here, and he was held by the Virgin Mary and Joseph — a miracle happened. It's extraordinary. It's amazing. I'm very happy," said Dina Brisken who is visiting from the U.S. state of Ohio.

A worshipper kisses the star inside the cave at th
A worshipper kisses the star inside the cave at the Church of the Nativity, in Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Dec. 23, 2018.

The turnout is much bigger than last year, when unrest kept many visitors away. Palestinians launched violent protests after U.S. President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Bethlehem Mayor Anton Salman told VOA Jerusalem must be the capital of a Palestinian state.

"Trump with what he did — he lost his position as a mediator, [an] honest mediator," he said.  "I don't think that there is a possibility with his policy in the Middle East that peace will prevail or the peace process will be active again."

Palestinians take part in a protest at an Israeli
Palestinians take part in a protest at an Israeli checkpoint, in Bethlehem, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Dec. 23, 2018.

In this little West Bank town, however, hope springs eternal.

"Bethlehem always has a message to the world built on hope and looking for peace and justice," Salman said.

In the Holy Land, religion and politics are never far apart.

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