Thousands of Christian Pilgrims Begin Christmas Celebrations in Bethlehem

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People take part in the Christmas Eve celebrations on December 24, 2016 at the Manger Square next to the Church of the Nativity, revered as the site of Jesus Christ's birth, in the biblical West Bank town of Bethlehem.
Crowds gathered in Bethlehem for Christmas Eve celebrations ahead of midnight mass at the spot where Christians believe Jesus was born, with more visitors expected than in 2015 due to a drop in violence. / AFP PHOTO / HAZEM BADER
People take part in the Christmas Eve celebrations at the Manger Square next to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, December 24, 2016.Credit: HAZEM BADER/AFP

Thousands of pilgrims and tourists from around the world together with locals began Christmas Eve celebrations in Jesus' traditional birthplace of Bethlehem on Saturday, lifting spirits after a tense year between Palestinians and Israelis.

The faithful braved the chilly weather outside Manger Square in the biblical West Bank town of Bethlehem as traditional Christmas songs like "Jingle Bells" played in Arabic over loudspeakers and scout groups paraded with bagpipes and sang carols. Elated tourists and local Christians alike wandered around the square illuminated by festive red and golden lights and a large Christmas tree, visiting souvenir shops and restaurants.

"It's very unique, I've never seen anything like it" said Rodrigo Reis, 23, who came from Louisville, Kentucky.

"It's very meaningful, its Christmas time, where everything started."

A Christian worshipper prays on Christmas Eve at the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank City of Bethlehem, Saturday, Dec. 24, 2016. Credit: Majdi Mohammed/AP

Christian clergymen welcomed the top Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land inside the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, the birth place of Jesus Christ, as Christians worldwide begin to prepare to celebrate Christmas this year.

The Rev. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarchate, is the temporary chief clergyman to the local Catholic population. He traveled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on Saturday in a traditional procession.

"I am happy that the war, at least the military war, in Aleppo is finished and that for the first time in Aleppo the Christians can celebrate without fear the Christmas season. I wish that they can now reconstruct, rebuild the city, not only the infrastructure but also the common relations that was a tradition over there," he told The Associated Press.

The Syrian government assumed full control of Aleppo earlier this month when rebels, including some Islamic militants, agreed to withdraw from their last remaining enclave after more than four years of heavy fighting over the country's largest city.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, congratulates Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, during the Christmas Mass at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, December 24, 2016. Credit: Musa Al Shaer/AP

Christmas festivities brought a boost of holiday cheer to Christians in the Holy Land that endured a wave of bloodshed that erupted over a year ago. Violence has tapered off in recent months but not halted completely.

Rula Maaya, the Palestinian minister of tourism, said all the hotels in Bethlehem were fully booked.

Despite the Christmas cheer, Mideast politics loom large in the background - the concrete barrier that surrounds parts of Bethlehem is just one hulking reminder. It was built by Israel last decade during the second Intifada, or uprising, when Palestinian suicide bombers attacked buses and cafes.

Israeli says the barrier is meant to keep out Palestinian attackers, but because it dips inside the West Bank, Palestinians see it as a land grab that also stunts their economy.

Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa (C), the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, takes part in the Christmas Eve celebrations outside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, December 24, 2016.Credit: HAZEM BADER/AFP
Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa (C), the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, leads the Christmas Midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity, in Bethlehem, December 24, 2016Credit: MUSA AL SHAER/AFP
People take part in the Christmas Eve celebrations at the Manger Square next to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, December 24, 2016.Credit: HAZEM BADER/AFP
People take part in the Christmas Eve celebrations at the Manger Square next to the Church of the Nativity, in Bethlehem, December 24, 2016. Credit: HAZEM BADER/AFP

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