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Thousands of Christian pilgrims gather in Bethlehem

Christmas Eve

Bethlehem/Jerusalem: Christmas celebrations broke the gloom of the past several months in the region plagued by a bloody war and rising tensions with thousands of pilgrims thronging the Holy city of Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus, in West Bank to attend the midnight mass.

The manger square, the centre of festivities, right in front of Church of Nativity was buzzing with activities on a bright sunny day as tourists jostled for space and vendors tried to sale them inflatable Santas, peanuts, toys, items of traditional craftsmanship as fireworks ignited the sky.

The forlorn streets of Bethlehem deserted by tourists, who are the major contributors to the local economy, during a difficult year showed signs of revival with Palestinian scouts adorning colourful outfit marching through them, vendors scattered all around and children in Santa Claus dress strolling all over the place shaking hands with tourists and wishing them Merry Christmas.

“The hotels are pretty packed for the first time this year…but I am afraid this is not going to last for long,” said Khaled al-Khatib, a local hotelier.

The Church of the Nativity, built over the grotto which Christians believe to be the site of Jesus’ birth, was as usual flanked by towering Christmas tree but a large poster in Arabic and English said, “All I want for Christmas is justice”, instead of peace which has been the norm so far.

“Our message this Christmas is a message of peace like every year, but what we added this year is that all we want from Christmas is justice. Justice for our people, justice for our case and the right to live like all other people in the world in our independent state without the occupation,” Palestinian Tourism Minister Rula Maaya said.

The town’s Mayor, Vera Baboun, echoed similar sentiments while waiting for the Latin Patriarch’s arrival in the afternoon to mark the beginning of the festivities.

Maaya said about 100,000 tourists would visit the town but local officials estimated that despite the arrival of tourists in large numbers during the past few days, the strength will still be much lower than the last year.

Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal, the leader of the community in the Holy land, led a procession from his Jerusalem headquarters to Bethlehem, passing through Israel’s concrete separation barrier, where he was received by Maaya and Baboun.

He was accompanied by thousands of scout groups, who played music as they marched from the Israeli checkpoint north of Bethlehem along the traditional pilgrimage route taken by Mary and Joseph en route to the Church of the Nativity.

In a strong message for peace, the Latin Patriarch, expressed hopes that “next year there will be no separation wall, and I hope we will have bridges of peace instead”.

“Peace comes from justice and we have a cause which we hope will be solved soon,” he said, calling upon Jews, Muslims and Christians to “live together as equals with mutual respect”.

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