Record crowds gather in Bethlehem

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Catholic pilgrims pray inside the Grotto of the Church of Nativity, traditionally believed by Christians to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ (AP)

The traditional birthplace of Jesus has celebrated its merriest Christmas in years as tens of thousands of tourists descended on Bethlehem.

Officials said the turnout was shaping up to be the largest since 2000. Unseasonably mild weather, a virtual halt in Israeli-Palestinian violence and a burgeoning economic revival in the West Bank all added to the cheer.

By nightfall a packed Manger Square was awash in red, blue, green and yellow Christmas lights.

Merrymakers blasted horns, bands sang traditional Christmas carols in Arabic, Boy Scout marching bands performed and Palestinian policemen deployed around the town to keep the peace.

A group of 30 tourists from Papua New Guinea wearing red Santa hats walked around the nearby Church of the Nativity, built on the site where tradition holds Jesus was born. Both church officials and the Palestinian president voiced hopes for peace.

Bethlehem used to attract tens of thousands of tourists from around the world for Christmas celebrations, but attendance dropped sharply following the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising in 2000.

As the fighting tapered off over the last five years, attendance steadily climbed. The town’s 2,750 hotel rooms were booked solid for Christmas week, and town chiefs say more hotels are being built.

Israeli officials said they expected about 90,000 visitors in Bethlehem during the current two-week holiday season, up from 70,000 last year.

But the bloodshed has left its mark. Visitors entering the town must cross through a massive metal gate in the separation barrier Israel built between Jerusalem and Bethlehem during a wave of Palestinian attacks last decade.

The Roman Catholic Church’s top clergyman in the Holy Land, Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal, crossed through the gate in a traditional midday procession from Jerusalem. Later he celebrated Midnight Mass, the peak of the Christmas events. In his homily, he issued a conciliatory call for peace between religions and urged an “intensification” of dialogue with Jews and Muslims.

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