Festive mood grips sunny Bethlehem

AFP, Friday 24 Dec 2010

Tourists flock to Bethlehem on a Christmas eve more summery than usual


A festive mood gripped a sunny Bethlehem on Friday as tourists flocked in record numbers to celebrate Christmas in the town where Christians believe Jesus Christ was born.

"It's amazing. To be in the birthplace of Christ on Christmas, you can't get better than that," said Brady MacCarl, 22.

The Canadian, who works in neighouring Beit Suhur, also on the West Bank, admitted that it was "a bit weird" to be celebrating Christmas with no snow on the ground.

The weather in Bethlehem was unseasonably warm, with clear blue skies and plenty of sun to warm tourists and Palestinians gathered in Manger Square to await the arrival of Latin Patriarch Fuad Twal in a traditional march.

At least 90,000 people were expected to flood the town for the celebrations, according to Palestinian Authority figures.

Charlene, an American from California who declined to give her last name, said it was a religious experience for her to be in Bethlehem for the day Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus.

"It's a crazy experience and it's probably one that will only happen once in our lives," she said

Crowds lined the square, most of them Palestinian Christians, but a few Muslim women sporting headscarves were also visible in the crowd.

Children, many clutching balloons and some dressed in Santa hats or full outfits, stood close to parents and jumped up and down at the sounds of drummers and bagpipers.

Palestinian security forces channelled visitors behind security barriers ahead of the arrival of the Latin patriarch, the most senior Catholic bishop in the Middle East.

Twal was to arrive in Manger Square in a procession that includes scout troupes from Christian towns and villages throughout the West Bank.

A group from Gaza was denied permission, Palestinian Authority officials said.

The day's events were to be capped by Twal's midnight mass, expected to include a message of hope for peace but also sound a sombre tone after the October 31 massacre of worshippers in a Baghdad church.

In a pre-Christmas message, he offered solidarity to Iraqi Christians, who have been the target of repeated bloodshed, including the church attack that killed 44 worshippers and two priests.

"We were shocked and troubled by the massacre of Christians in Baghdad in the church," Twal said.

"For the Iraqi Christians, we are with them in this bad situation," he added, noting the sharp drop in the number of Christians in Iraq from about 800,000 at the time of the US-led invasion of 2003 to about 500,000 now.

He also lamented the failure of renewed direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, but urged the faithful not to give up hope.

"We continue to believe that on both sides, and in the international community, there are men of goodwill who will work and put their energies together in their commitment for peace," he said in his address on Tuesday.

"We believe that nothing is impossible with God."

Unlike in years past, when the spectre of unrest and violence kept visitors away from its 24 hotels, instead staying inside Israel, Bethlehem hoteliers were expecting many tourists to stay over on Friday night.

The Christmas season will cap a year of unprecedented tourism for Bethlehem and the Palestinian territories, where visitor revenues are sorely needed.

Bethlehem was to also host tens of thousands of Palestinians from the West Bank and Arab Israelis, and several hundred from the tiny Christian community in Gaza who were able to secure rare Israeli entry permits for the holiday.

Short link: