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Pilgrims, Palestinians Celebrate Christmas Eve in Bethlehem

Christian pilgrims from Nigeria pray inside the Grotto of the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed by Christians to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 2014.

Pilgrims from around the world have converged on the West Bank town of Bethlehem for Christmas Eve celebrations hosted by the Palestinian Authority.

Christmas celebrations kicked off in Bethlehem with a festive march by Palestinian boy and girl scouts through Manger Square. They marched past a giant Christmas tree facing the ancient Church of the Nativity, where tradition says Jesus was born.

A large crowd of local Palestinians looked on, including Soufyan Sobech, who is a Muslim.

“Most people are happy because this is Christmas. We are here in Bethlehem, the city of the peace. And we have a special way of Christmas. The Muslim and Christian people, they are happy on Christmas, not just Christian people. And it will be a Merry Christmas,” said Sobech.

Pilgrims came from all over the world to participate in the festivities and worship at the ancient Grotto of the Nativity.

Espoir Serukiza, who is from the Congo, said, “I’m so much blessed to be here and it’s a good place for Christians, for believers; and I’m a Christian, so it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity being here and it’s an honor and a privilege.”

The turnout is lower this Christmas than in recent years. The 50-day war between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas in the Gaza Strip several months ago brought a sharp drop in tourism, and the industry still has not recovered.

Since the Bethlehem economy depends on tourism, that is bad news for Palestinian shopkeepers in Manger Square, like Mary Giacaman.

“We should see more tourists these days for Christmas. But no, when the tourists hear there’s something going on, or violence or anything, they don’t come,” she said.

Adding to the hardships in Bethlehem is Israel’s security barrier erected over a decade ago following a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings.

Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal, who heads the Roman Catholic Church in the Holy Land, passed through the concrete barrier to get to Bethlehem from Jerusalem. He said he hopes the wall will come down and that “there will be bridges of peace instead."

Tense year

Christmas Eve in Bethlehem began less than peacefully Wednesday when a shoving match broke out between a marching band and police during holiday celebrations.

Video of the scuffle shows security forces with batons raised as Twal was quickly ushered away from a crowd packing the streets near the Church of the Nativity, said to be built over the birthplace of Jesus.

Palestinian police had increased their presence to 500 officers around the city about 10 kilometers south of Jerusalem in anticipation of thousands of Christian pilgrims for the holiday.

Rula Ma'ayah, Palestinian Minister of Tourism, said, "We are expecting until the end of this month to have receive around hundred thousand visitors coming to Bethlehem from all over the world."

Ahead of the Christmas Eve services, Twal asked for a more tranquil year ahead.

"Peace will only come with justice, we have a just case and it should be resolved," he said. "We hope that 2015 will be more merciful than 2014, which was hard year."

A day earlier, Palestinian demonstrators in Santa Claus suits clashed with Israeli security forces as they marched toward a checkpoint connecting Bethlehem to Jerusalem.

Violence between Palestinian protesters and Israeli police heightened tensions in Jerusalem and the West Bank in recent months, on the heels of a violent 50-day war in Gaza between Hamas and Israel that killed more than 2,000 people.

Sporadic violence has broken out along the Gaza border since an August cease-fire ended the conflict. On Wednesday, Israeli forces killed a Hamas fighter after the army said it came under Palestinian sniper fire that injured a soldier near the Gaza Strip.

Some information for this report came from AP and Reuters.