Thousands flock to Bethlehem for Christmas
BETHLEHEM, Palestinian Territories - Thousands of Palestinians and tourists streamed into the West Bank city of Bethlehem on Monday to mark Christmas in the "little town" where many believe Jesus Christ was born.
This year's celebration carries special significance for many Palestinians, coming after 12 months in which their status on the world stage has been significantly upgraded.
Just last month, the United Nations granted them the status of non-member observer state, and earlier this year they won their first UNESCO World Heritage Site designation -- for Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity.
The designation also included part of a pilgrimage route in Bethlehem, along which the traditional Christmas procession headed by the Latin Patriarch Fuad Twal marched on Monday.
Under nearly cloudless blue skies and a surprisingly warm December sun, thousands of tourists and Palestinians -- Muslims and Christians alike -- lined the route to welcome the procession.
Dozens of scout troupes of boys and girls from across the West Bank drumming and playing the bagpipes marched into Manger Square, where an enormous Christmas tree decorated with hundreds of red baubles stood behind a Nativity scene.
As night fell, the tree was illuminated, a giant star shining from its top over Manger Square in front of the church built over the site where Christians believe Mary gave birth to Jesus in a stable.
Earlier, Taghreed Rishmawi, 20, a biology student from Bethlehem, said she felt Christmas was "particularly special this year because it comes after the UN gave us the state status".
"That decision gave us hope, and we feel that the world sees us as a state now."
At midnight, Twal, the most senior Roman Catholic bishop in the Middle East, will deliver the traditional mass to the faithful, with officials including Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, prime minister Salam Fayyad and Jordan's Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh expected to be in attendance.
Twal was expected to call for renewed efforts to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and urge the faithful to pray for those affected by ongoing violence in the region, particularly in Syria.
Last week, in a pre-Christmas press conference, Twal praised the UN decision to upgrade Palestinian status, calling it a "step towards peace and stability in the region".
"Israel can now negotiate on equal state-to-state terms for the good of all," he told reporters.
In the weeks leading up to Christmas, the Palestinians have seen Israel move forward with settlement activity, including around Bethlehem.
The Palestinians say the new settlement activity is intended to punish them for the UN upgrade, which was fiercely opposed by Israel and the United States.
But Xavier Abu Eid, an adviser to the Palestine Liberation Organisation, said this year's celebration of Christmas would still be particularly meaningful for Palestinians.
"At Christmas, we celebrate the birth of the prince of hope and the prince of peace, and the Palestinian people have been hoping for 64 years to achieve a just peace," since the creation of the state of Israel, he told AFP.
"After the UN vote we feel a step closer to this just peace we've been searching for."
Dotted among Palestinians in Manger Square were hundreds of foreign tourists.
"The expectations were between 10-15,000 foreign tourists coming into the city," Samir Hazbun, chairman of Bethlehem's Chamber of Commerce, told AFP.
Many visitors won't spend the night in Bethlehem, but Hazbun said most of the city's 3,700 hotel rooms were booked up both international visitors and Palestinians from inside Israel or elsewhere in the West Bank.
Canadian tourist Joan Cross, 58, was beaming as she photographed the procession entering Manger Square.
"It's just magical," she told AFP. "I've waited 20 years to come as a Christian pilgrim.
"My mum and I always wanted to come together, but she passed away aged 97 last year, unfortunately, so this trip is really for both of us."
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