Bethlehem welcomes pilgrims for Christmas celebrations

Bethlehem (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) –


The biblical city of Bethlehem, revered by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus, was preparing Monday to welcome pilgrims from around the world to celebrate Christmas in the Holy Land.

The "little town" in the Israeli-occupied West Bank is planning festivities in and around the Church of the Nativity, built on the site where Christians believe Jesus was born.

On Monday afternoon, hundreds of tourists and locals gathered in the square outside the church, where a 15-metre (50-foot) Christmas tree had been erected.

Children dressed as Santa Claus played while workers made final preparations to speakers and televisions, as Christmas music filled the square.

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.

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

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

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

Fewer Christians from the Gaza Strip will attend the ceremony than in previous years, as Israel granted permits to just around 200 of the some 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.

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."