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Pilgrims flock to Bethlehem amid tight security

Latest update : 2008-12-25

The annual Christmas pilgrimage to Bethlehem has bought some Christmas cheer to the Israeli-occupied West Bank amid tight security as Hamas fighters renewed their rocket campaign against southern Israel from the Gaza Strip.

AFP - Braving chilly temperatures, thousands of Christian faithful on Wednesday flocked to Bethlehem to celebrate Christmas and pray for peace in the traditional birthplace of Jesus.

The pilgrims, returning in the largest numbers yet since the 2000 start of the Palestinian uprising, brought a strong dose of Christmas cheer to the city in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

But visitors came face-to-face with the stark reality of a troubled region, in the shape of an eight-metre (26-feet) high concrete wall -- part of Israel's controversial separation barrier -- just a few hundred metres from the spot where Christians believe Jesus was born.

"It was heartbreaking to see that wall, it's a blot on Israel," said Jessica Kelly, a 22-year-old student from Sydney.

She and her boyfriend Sean Wright, a 30-year-old student also from Sydney, both said they felt torn between the joy of Christmas and the sadness they felt as they entered Bethlehem through an Israeli checkpoint at the wall that separates the biblical city from Jerusalem, just a few kilometres (miles) away.

Both were planning to attend the traditional midnight mass. "As Roman Catholics, it's an important tradition for us. And we will pray for peace in the Middle East," said Wright.

Many of the pilgrims who made their way to Bethlehem in their thousands in the past few days prayed in the Church of the Nativity, where a grotto marks the location of the stable where Jesus was said to be born.

Others milled in Manger Square just outside the church, where boy-scout marching bands kicked off celebrations playing hymns on bagpipes and drums.

"It is really very special to be in Bethlehem on the day we celebrate Christmas, it is a very emotional moment," said Eduardo Robles Gil, a Mexican priest who was on a pilgrimage with his family.

Incense rose to overcast skies as the head of the Roman Catholic Church in the Holy Land, Latin Patriarch Fuad Twal, led a procession into the Nativity Church before celebrating vespers in the adjoining St Catherine's Church.

Around Manger Square, souvenir stores were doing brisk business selling nativity scenes carved in olive wood, various icons and other religious trinkets.

Elsa Marie Kierkegaard, a Dane who converted to Catholicism five years ago, was a little taken aback by what she felt was crass commercialism.

"It's like one big market," she said looking at the food stands, garlands of lights, synthetic pine trees and inflatable Santas.

But the tourists brought joy to the city's business community.

Bethlehem this year welcomed over one-million tourists this year, twice as many as in 2007 and the highest number since 1999, Palestinian officials said.

Beaming hoteliers say there there won't be any room at the inns in this city of 185,000 people for weeks to come.

Among the 12,500 visitors expected on Christmas eve alone was Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, who planned to attend midnight mass.

The tourist boom is a welcome respite for the Palestinian territory, whose economic growth has been severely hurt by Israeli restrictions on movement of goods and people, including hundreds of checkpoints and the separation barrier.

Faithful from the Gaza Strip, which has a tiny Christian majority, were also expected at the mass after Israeli authorities said they allowed 300 to leave the besieged territory where violence escalated again on Wednesday.

In Gaza City, Roman Catholic priest Manuel Musalem celebrated midnight mass six hours early in what he called a protest against the violence and the Israeli blockade of the impoverished Palestinian territory.

"We pray for peace and that the blockade and the siege end in the Gaza Strip, and we ask the world to help Palestinians," he said in his sermon to about 200 faithful.

Date created : 2008-12-24