Christian pilgrims head to Bethlehem by the thousands for old-style Christmas

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) — Thousands of Christian pilgrims descended on the West Bank town of Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus, ahead of Tuesday's annual Christmas Eve celebrations.

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The Church of the Nativity, where Christians believe Jesus was born, was set to host Palestinian dignitaries and pilgrims from around the world for a midnight Mass.

Uniformed Palestinian scouts wearing yellow and gold capes paraded past assembled visitors in Manger Square, bedecked with a large Christmas tree, playing drums and bagpipes.

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Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the head Catholic cleric in the Holy Land, crossed an Israeli army checkpoint from Jerusalem to Bethlehem ahead of the holiday prayers, where he was greeted by prominent members of Bethlehem's Christian community.

Pizzaballa said that he draws hope from the “desire, especially in the youth, to do something for their societies, families.”

“This is my hope, is that these people can make Christmas not just today, but everyday, because that's what we need,” he said.

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Christmas festivities are typically a boost for Bethlehem's flagging economy and for the Holy Land's dwindling Christian population, which has shrunk over the decades compared to the general population.

Palestinian Tourism Minister Rula Maaya said the number of foreign tourists visiting the West Bank rose to 3.5 million in 2019, from 3 million the previous year. At least 15,000 pilgrims were staying overnight in Bethlehem for Christmas, she said.

“All hotels in the city are full today," said Maaya, including hotels newly completed this year.

Most of Bethlehem is in the Palestinian-controlled area of the West Bank, but Israel’s imposing separation barrier runs through part of the city and is a constant reminder of the complex political reality.