Thousands Gather to Celebrate Christmas Eve in Bethlehem

Holiday expected to draw 90,000 visitors to Bethlehem, with the climax being the midnight mass at the Church of the Nativity, Christmas Eve.

Thousands of pilgrims, tourists and local Christians gather in the biblical West Bank town of Bethlehem on Saturday to celebrate Christmas Eve, where Jesus is said to have been born.

By early evening, the Israeli military, which controls movement in and out of town, said some 55,000 visitors, including foreigners and Arab Christians from Israel, had reached Bethlehem.

Palestinian officials in Bethlehem said that with local tourists included, overall turnout was 120,000 - about 30 percent higher than last year.

The number was expected to rise throughout the evening.Israel's Tourism Ministry said it expects 90,000 visitors for the holiday.

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Ministry spokeswoman Lydia Weitzman said that number is the same as last year's record-breaking tally, but was surprisingly high considering the turmoil in the Arab world and the U.S.and European economic downturns.

Bethlehem Mayor Victor Batarseh said he hopes this year's celebrations will bring Palestinians closer to their dream of statehood. With peace talks stalled with Israel, Palestinians this year made a unilateral bid for recognition at the United Nations and were accepted as a member by UNESCO, the UN cultural agency.

"We are celebrating this Christmas hoping that in the near future we'll get our right to self-determination our right to establish our own democratic, secular Palestinian state on the Palestinian land. That is why this Christmas is unique," Batarseh told The Associated Press.

Bethlehem is today surrounded on three sides by a barrier Israel built to stop Palestinian militants from attacking Israel. Palestinians say the barrier damaged their economy.

Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal, the Roman Catholic Church's head clergyman in the Holy Land, crossed through a massive metal gate in the barrier, in a traditional midday procession from Jerusalem on Saturday.

"We ask the child of Bethlehem to give us the peace we are in desperate need for, peace in the Middle East, peace in the Holy Land, peace in the heart and in our families," Twal said before heading to the Church of the Nativity, where he was to celebrate Midnight Mass.

The number of Christians in the West Bank is on the decline, and many speak of persecution by the Muslim majority, but always anonymously, fearing retribution.

Christians have even lost their majority in Bethlehem where more than two-thirds of the some 50,000 Palestinian residents are now Muslim.

 "It's really hectic, but everybody is happy so it's really nice to be here," said Emily, a tourist from Denmark.

"And, well, it's just so nice to experience everything with people who believe in the same thing."

The number of foreign visitors to Bethlehem has risen steadily in the past few years, encouraged by a decline in the Israeli-Palestinian violence that often marred the occasion in the past.

"Obviously it's very special to be at this place where Jesus was born, as part of a tradition of the Christian church," said Ted Settle, an American pilgrim.

 "It's very meaningful to be here with the people of Palestine who have endured so much hardship, to be here where Jesus was raised and taught about justice and peace."

Local Palestinian police with automatic weapons patrol the streets of Bethlehem, with Israeli troops controlling the nearby concrete wall and checkpoint on the road to Jerusalem.

In Manger Square, tourists mingled with locals, many of whom wore red and white Santa caps as an Arabic rendition of "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" played over a sound system.