Thousands of Pilgrims Flock to Bethlehem for Christmas

Greater security has raised tourism in the West Bank city, with 1.25 million visitors expected by year's end.

Thousands of Christian pilgrims from around the world arrived in Bethlehem on Wednesday, to spend Christmas Eve in the birthplace of Jesus.

About 500 security men loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas arrived from the West Bank cities of Ramallah and Jericho to provide security for the holiday.

"We expect about 40,000 visitors in Bethlehem this week," said Khouloud Daibes-Abu Dayyeh, the Palestinian Authority's minister of tourism.

The estimate includes Christians from the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Israel and the rest of the world. About 900 from Gaza applied for Israeli permission to go to the site where Christians believe Jesus was born, but only 300 got it.

Heightened security has led to a boom year for tourism in the West Bank city, which tourists had largely abandoned when the Palestinian uprising against Israel began in 2000.

"It has been an excellent year," Bethlehem's mayor Victor Batarseh said, forecasting 1.25 million visitors by the end of 2008 and noting a halving in local unemployment.

"We don't have any empty beds. Two years ago, all the hotels were empty."

For many Christians, visiting Bethlehem remains a moving experience. "This is the home of Christmas," said Dennis Thomson, an American working in Jerusalem, who visited earlier in December.

"This is so important to our world," said Violetta Krupova, a retired Russian doctor from St. Petersburg, who was visibly moved as she left the church where local priests wafted incense and chanted Latin. "I have wanted to come here for so long.