Christmas celebrations underway in Bethlehem, with up to 10,000 Christian visitors expected
Crowds flooded the Church of the Nativity, recognised as the traditional site of Jesus’s birth. (AP: Nasser Nasser)
Pilgrims from around the world have flocked to Bethlehem for what is believed to be the biblical West Bank city’s largest Christmas celebration in years.
- The city is expected to host 10,000 visitors on Christmas Eve
- An estimated 3 million people have visited Bethlehem this year, exceeding last year’s count by hundreds of thousands
- Security is tight amid the merriment, with personnel and vehicles stationed around Manger Square
Hundreds of locals and foreign visitors milled in Manger Square as bagpipe-playing Palestinian Scouts paraded past a giant Christmas tree.
Crowds flooded the Church of the Nativity, venerated as the traditional site of Jesus’s birth, and waited to descend into the ancient grotto.
Palestinian Tourism Minister Rula Maaya said all Bethlehem hotels were fully booked, and the city was preparing to host an “astounding” 10,000 tourists overnight.
“We haven’t seen numbers like this in years,” she said, adding that the 3 million visitors to Bethlehem this year exceeded last year’s count by hundreds of thousands.
Solemn-faced nuns and enthused tourists crossed themselves and bowed over their rosaries as they entered the church, the air thick with incense.
Linda Selbmann, 24, of Germany, said she had long dreamed of celebrating Christmas in Bethlehem.
“It’s wild to be in the place it all began,” she said, sipping Turkish coffee in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary cradling the infant Jesus.
Palestinian scouts marched through town ahead of midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity. (AP: Nasser Nasser)
The Christmas festivities traditionally bring a boost of holiday cheer to Christians in the Holy Land, whose numbers have shrunk over the decades and make up just a small percentage of the local population.
As the sun set on Manger Square, the enormous Christmas tree lit up and the city’s ancient passageways shone with coloured string lights and flashing crosses. Choirs sang classic carols and hymns, their voices echoing throughout the plaza.
Palestinian youths peddled Santa hats to tourists and shop windows bearing signs reading “Jesus Is Here” displayed olivewood Nativity scenes and other souvenirs.
Earlier in the day, Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the top Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land, entered Bethlehem after crossing an Israeli military checkpoint from Jerusalem.
Palestinian security personnel and vehicles stationed around the square reminded visitors that amid the merriment, they could not quite escape the city’s political reality.
Bethlehem is located in the Palestinian-controlled area of the West Bank, and much of the city lies behind Israel’s separation barrier.
“Last year things were worse because the injustice was so obvious,” Ms Maaya said, referring to US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, incensing the Palestinians and igniting clashes.
“But this year doesn’t feel so different. We are still occupied, and we always have problems,” she said.
Monjed Jadou, a Bethlehem resident, said although he noticed an impressive amount of foreigners in the square, the crowds of Palestinian visitors appeared thinner than usual.
“Security is tighter around here than it’s been in a while, and the streets feel less safe. I think people are afraid,” he said, adding that his friends from the West Bank city of Ramallah decided not to come because the Israeli army had been blocking roads around the city.
Palestinian protesters, some are dressed as Santa Claus, stationed themselves at checkpoints between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. (AP: Nasser Nasser)