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Bethlehem bustling as pilgrims flock there to celebrate Christmas

Thousands of Christian pilgrims flocked to the West Bank town of Bethlehem to celebrate Christmas Eve in the traditional birthplace of Jesus.

Visitors converged on the town's large Christmas tree in Manger Square, near the spot believed to mark Jesus' birthplace. Uniformed Palestinian scouts wearing yellow and gold capes paraded past assembled visitors, the sound of drums and bagpipes filling the cool, clear air. Vendors hawked snacks and holiday gifts, adding to the festive atmosphere.

Tourists and pilgrims visit Manger Square outside the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on December 24, 2019. HAZEM BADER/AFP via Getty Images

Roger Hoagland, a Christian educator and missionary from Louisville, Kentucky, said he had come to lead a Baptist choir for a fourth time and described his visit as the experience of a lifetime.

"We love this opportunity," he said. "We have 40 people and many of them are from the U.S. and other countries. They come to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ."

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 he draws hope from the "desire, especially in the youth, to do something for their societies, families."

Pierbattista Pizzaballa, apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, blesses worshippers ahead of Christmas Eve mass at the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on December 24, 2019. MUSA AL SHAER/AFP via Getty Images

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

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.

Worshipper kisses the star inside the Church of the Nativity on Christmas eve in Bethlehem, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank
A worshipper kisses the star inside the Church of the Nativity on Christmas eve in Bethlehem on December 24, 2019. AMMAR AWAD / REUTERS

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.

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

Fewer Christians from the Gaza Strip were in attendance than in previous years, as Israel granted permits to just around 200 of the roughly 900 people who applied, Wadie Abunassar, an adviser to church leaders in the Holy Land, told Agence France Presse.

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

A few hundred Gazan Christians have traditionally been granted permits to attend Christmas festivities in Bethlehem and Jerusalem each year.

This year, Israel initially didn't announce any permits, prompting criticism from church groups and media.

On Sunday, a statement from COGAT, the Israeli military body responsible for the permits, said some would be granted "in accordance with security assessments".

A clergyman holds a crucifix as Christians gather for Christmas celebrations at the Manger Square outside the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on December 24, 2019 MUSA AL SHAER/AFP via Getty Images

Gaza is ruled by the Islamist group Hamas, which Israel accuses of abusing the permit system to plan attacks against its citizens.

Abunassar told AFP Monday, "We still hope there will be more (permits) to come. We were promised by many Israeli bodies."

"The Holy Land is not only the site of the birth and crucifixion (of Jesus), it is also the place of resurrection," he said.

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

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