IN PHOTOS: Tens of Thousands Flock to Israel and West Bank for Christmas

Pilgrims from across the globe set to arrive to celebrate Christmas, a highlight being the traditional Midnight Mass in Bethlehem.

Palestinians dressed up as Santa Claus distribute gifts, Ramallah, West Bank, December 23, 2015.
AFP

Tens of thousands of Christians, both locals and foreign pilgrims, were set to celebrate Christmas in the Holy Land Thursday, a highlight being the traditional Midnight Mass in the birthplace of Jesus.

Tourists from across the globe had travelled to Israel and the Palestinian areas for the holiday season via Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, Israeli Tourism Ministry spokeswoman Lydia Weitzman said.

The final number to be released after the holiday was expected to be several per cent lower than in 2014 because of a fresh wave of violence that has overshadowed the celebrations.

Local Christians in Israel and the West Bank, where they form a 2-percent minority, and the Gaza Strip, where they are just 0.1 per cent of the population, were also due to attend celebrations in the southern West Bank city of Bethlehem, the northern Israeli town of Nazareth, Jerusalem, and elsewhere.

Israel says it has eased travel restrictions for Palestinian Christians.

Most local Arab Christians are Orthodox, who mark Christmas on January 7, but they include several thousand Roman Catholics, who mark Christmas on December 25.

The highest-ranking Vatican representative in the Holy Land, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad Twal, was scheduled at 0900 GMT Thursday to embark on the annual Christmas procession from Jerusalem to nearby Bethlehem.

Church bells will ring out in the historic Old City of Jerusalem's Christian Quarter, after which the patriarch's motorcade is set to move slowly to the Biblical birthplace of Jesus.

Stopping at a monastery along the way, he will enter Bethlehem in the early afternoon, completing the last stage on foot.

Later, he will deliver Midnight Mass in the Church of the Nativity, built on the spot where it is believed that Jesus was born. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah are expected to attend.

Bethlehem Mayor Vera Baboun said earlier this week that only 40 per cent of hotel rooms were booked in the Biblical town this year, amid the recent wave of violence in Israel and the Palestinian areas.