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Thursday, 17 October 2019

Pilgrims gather in Bethlehem to celebrate Christmas Eve

AFP , Monday 24 Dec 2018
Christmas Eve in Bethlehem
A 55-foot Christmas tree towers above the revelers outside the Church of the Nativity where Christian pilgrims gather to celebrate Christmas Eve in Manger Square, Bethlehem (Photo: AFP)
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Pilgrims from across the world gathered in Bethlehem on Monday for Christmas Eve, queueing to see the grotto where Jesus is believed to have been born and taking in a festive parade.

Midnight mass was to be held in Bethlehem later, while Pope Francis was also due to hold mass at the Vatican as Christians celebrate the traditional day of Jesus's birth after a tumultuous year.

In Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank, the Palestinian scouts and a bagpipe band paraded in Manger Square across from the Church of the Nativity, built where Christians say Mary gave birth to Jesus.

Crowds, some wearing Santa hats or holding balloons, looked on at the square decked out with a giant Christmas tree and a manger as carols in Arabic played through speakers.

The Catholic archbishop for the Holy Land, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, arrived later in the afternoon and was to lead midnight mass.

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas was to be among dignitaries attending the ceremony.

This year, visitors are able to view the Church of the Nativity's newly restored mosaics after they were recently cleaned and repaired in a major project.

The first church was built on the site in the fourth century, though it was replaced after a fire in the sixth century.

A newer and more spacious church, St. Catherine, is located next door and is where midnight mass is held.

"It's a great opportunity to be in such a symbolic location for Christmas," said Lea Gudel, a 21-year-old French student studying in Jerusalem, who was in Manger Square on Monday morning.

Bethlehem, located near Jerusalem but cut off from the city by Israel's separation barrier, has seen an increase in visitors this season after several down years due to unrest linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Palestinian tourism officials and hotel operators have reported their strongest season in years.

"This year is much more calm, much better than last year," said Abeer Nasser, a Palestinian from the nearby town of Beit Sahour who was with her son and daughter and was planning to attend midnight mass.

"Every year I feel more in the mood to celebrate despite the political situation," the 37-year-old added, referring to the Israeli occupation.

Later in the day, musical groups took the stage at Manger Square in front of the Christmas tree, illuminated as night fell, to sing Christmas carols.

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