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.
Palestinian security personnel and vehicles stationed around the square reminded visitors that amid the merriment, they couldn’t 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.
In anticipation of the midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity, the climax of Christmas Eve celebrations, Palestinians and pilgrims huddled in groups, some singing “Silent Night” and carrying candles.
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