Bethlehem welcomes tourists for Christmas celebrations

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Pilgrims from around the world gathered on Tuesday (Dec 24) in the biblical city of Bethlehem, revered by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus, to celebrate Christmas in the Holy Land.

Palestinians and foreigners began converging on the “little town” in the Israeli-occupied West Bank from early morning, with Christmas Eve festivities taking place in and around the Church of the Nativity.

Tourists queued to visit the grotto inside the church, believed to be the exact site where Jesus was born, with Ola, a Nigerian visitor, saying it was a “special day”.

 

Christian pilgrims pray in the Grotto of the Church of the Nativity on Christmas Eve in the biblical West Bank city of Bethlehem on Dec 24, 2019. (Photo: AFP/Musa Al SHAER)
Outside in the winter sun, hundreds watched as Palestinian scouts paraded to the sound of drums.

“I feel really emotional to be here today, it’s wonderful,” said Germana, an Italian travelling with her husband and two children.

Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem and the most senior Roman Catholic official in the Middle East, was due to travel from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on Tuesday morning.

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Palestinian scouts perform during a parade at the Manger Square outside the Church of the Nativity in the biblical West Bank city of Bethlehem on Dec 24, 2019 ahead of the arrival of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem. (Photo: HAZEM BADER / AFP)

He will lead midnight mass in the Church of the Nativity, with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas expected to attend.

Bethlehem is close to Jerusalem, but cut off from the holy city by Israel’s separation barrier.

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

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Palestinians wearing Christmas costumes stand with protest signs against Israeli politicians and the occupation by a barbed-wire section of Israel’s controversial separation barrier near the village of Wallajeh, west of the biblical city of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank, on Dec 23, 2019. (Photo: Musa Al SHAER / AFP)    

This year celebrations were bolstered by the return of a wooden fragment believed to be from the manger of Jesus.

Sent as a gift to Pope Theodore I in 640, the piece had been in Europe for more than 1,300 years before being returned last month, Francesco Patton, chief custodian for the Holy Land, said.

“We venerate the relic because (it) reminds us of the mystery of incarnation, to the fact that the son of God was born of Mary in Bethlehem more than 2,000 years ago,” Patton told AFP at the time.

“TOUGH CHRISTMAS IN GAZA”

In the square by the church, Palestinian tourism minister Rula Maaya told AFP it had been a good year, with 3.5 million tourists visiting the city.

But fewer Christians from the Gaza Strip were in attendance than in previous years, as Israel granted permits to just around 200 of the around 900 people who applied, said Wadie Abunassar, an adviser to church leaders in the Holy Land.

The Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza are separated by Israeli territory and crossing between them requires hard-to-get permits.

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Palestinians wearing Christmas costumes distribute gifts to children seated atop the rubble of a house demolished by Israel reportedly for not being built with official licensing in the village of al-Khader, west of the biblical city of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank, on Dec 23, 2019. (Photo: Musa Al SHAER / AFP)

Abunassar said Christmas remained a time for hope.

“The Holy Land is not only the site of the birth and crucifixion (of Jesus), it is also the place of resurrection,” he told AFP.

“Despite all challenges, difficulties, pain and problems we are facing, we keep the hope in God and people.”

“BUMPY YEAR”

Around the world, people were getting ready to ring in the Christmas festivities.

In her traditional Christmas Day message, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II was to describe 2019 as “quite bumpy” after a year of crises in the royal family.

In France, travellers were meanwhile in for more woe in the bitter nearly-three week strike by train drivers fighting government pension reform plans.

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Police and anti-riot Gendarmes mobiles stand in position as railway workers demonstrate outside the Gare de Lyon train station in Paris. (DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP)

The walkout has ruined Christmas travel plans for tens of thousands of French ticket holders unable to reach loved ones in time for Christmas Day.

A frantic scramble for gift promotions left a dozen people injured in an Australian mall.

And in the central Philippines, where Christmas is widely celebrated among the country’s Catholics, thousands of people were warned to leave their homes as a severe tropical storm approached.

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