BETHLEHEM, WEST BANK - The Christian faithful flocked to Palestinian-governed Bethlehem in the West Bank to celebrate Christmas.
Christmas Eve celebrations got off to a festive start at Manger Square.
Palestinian Boy and Girl Scouts marched past a giant Christmas tree in front of the ancient Church of the Nativity, the traditional birthplace of Jesus.
Local Palestinians watched the parade along with pilgrims from around the world.
“I’m happy to be here and see the different sites and how each culture interprets devotion to God in different ways,” said Michael Aliprandini from the U.S. state of Arizona.
The atmosphere was more solemn inside the church, where pilgrims visited the Grotto of the Nativity. Sylvia Nakazibwe came from Uganda.
“It’s quite a very life-changing experience for me because since childhood I’ve always read the Bible, I’ve read about where Jesus was born, but sometimes you just keep imagining and not being sure. But coming here has increased my faith,” said Nakazibwe.
It was a big turnout this year thanks to a lull in West Bank violence.
“The message of Bethlehem always was a message of peace, hope and justice for everybody,” said Bethlehem’s Palestinian Mayor Anton Salman.
But Salman told VOA that he is pessimistic about the prospects for peace with Israel. He blamed U.S. President Donald Trump for recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and moving the American Embassy there from Tel Aviv last year.
“Trump, instead of bringing peace to the region, he made it more complicated. And with that, he didn’t serve the peace process or the meaning of peace,” he said.
President Trump has said his announcement regarding Jerusalem does not mean the U.S. is taking a position on “any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the resolution of contested borders.” He said the U.S. remained committed to a two-state solution if the parties want one.