|Worshippers attend midnight mass at the Church of the Nativity to usher in Christmas [AFP]|
A recent lull in violence and renewed Middle East peace talks have bolstered tourist and pilgrim numbers, with the Palestinian town in the West Bank enjoying its busiest Christmas since the second intifada began seven years ago .
Despite the festive atmosphere, however, a heavy police deployment, the presence of Israel's massive separation wall and unease among Bethlehem's ever-shrinking Christian population served as reminders of the lingering tensions in the region.
Bethlehem is believed to be where Jesus Christ was born and Christians celebrate his birth on Christmas.
|Christians from all over the world celebrated |
Jesus' birth in the Palestinian town [AFP]
In the years following the 1993 Oslo peace accord, Bethlehem attracted tens of thousands of tourists for Christmas. But the number of visitors plummeted after the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising in 2000.
Tourism has begun to recover in recent years as fighting has slowed and this year it got a boost from the renewal of peace talks last month at a summit in the American city of Annapolis.
Israeli tourism officials said they expected some 20,000 visitors to cross from Jerusalem into neighbouring Bethlehem, an increase of about 50 per cent over last year, though still well below the peak years.
Tourism workers handed out sweets and flowers to pilgrims, and smiling Israeli soldiers posed for pictures with travellers.
Bethlehem's governor, Saleh Tamari, said all of the town's 5,000 hotel rooms were booked.
Priests and monks, tourists, Palestinian families and Palestinian police mingled in Manger Square outside the Church of the Nativity, the site where tradition holds Jesus was born.
Throughout the evening, choirs and orchestras performed hymns and Christmas carols in a multitude of languages.
Jacques Aman, whose wooden handicrafts shop offered crosses, rosaries and nativity scenes, said "this year is much better than the last seven years for tourism".
"The atmosphere is better in general. There is relative calm, from the security standpoint."
Speaking to reporters as he came out of prayers at a Bethlehem mosque and before he attended midnight mass at the church, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, expressed hope that the renewed peace talks would bring about an independent Palestinian state in the coming year.
"We hope that this year will be the year of independence for the Palestinian people. God willing, this will be the year of security and stability and economic prosperity for the Palestinians," he said.
Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, the leading Roman Catholic official in the Holy Land, began the Christmas celebrations with his annual procession from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.
Sabbah, the first Palestinian to hold the position, could only enter Bethlehem after passing through a massive steel gate in Israel's contentious separation wall.
Israeli mounted policemen escorted Sabbah, in his flowing magenta robe, to the gate, and border police clanged it shut behind him.
|Abbas expressed hopes for an independent |
Palestinian state in the coming year [AFP]
In his Christmas homily delivered at Midnight Mass, Sabbah delivered a politically charged appeal for peace and love in the Holy Land – and independence for the Palestinian people.
"This land of God cannot be for some a land of life and for others a land of death, exclusion, occupation, or political imprisonment," he said.
The barrier was just one of the reminders of the area's lingering troubles.
Hundreds of police were deployed in Manger Square and on neighbouring rooftops, and before celebrants started flowing in, bomb squads walked through the streets sweeping cars and buildings for explosives.
Years of violence with Israel, infighting among rival Palestinian factions and economic hardship caused by the barrier have all contributed to the departure of a growing number of Christians from Bethlehem.
Officials say 35 to 50 per cent of the town's 40,000 people are Christian, compared to 90 per cent in the 1950s.
Johnny Giacaman, a Bethlehem native who now lives in the United Arab Emirates but returned this year to visit his family, said he is among the people who have left.
"There is nothing for young people here," he said, standing outside his family's gift shop. "Christians are leaving in high numbers. I am an example. If this continues, in five to 10 years the Church of the Nativity will be a museum."
|At the traditional spot where Jesus was born in |
the Church of the Nativity Grotto [EPA]
In his homily, Sabbah criticised religious extremists and lamented the dwindling number of Christians.
"To all of you Christians in this land, you who are tempted to emigrate … I say to you what Jesus told us: Do not be afraid," he said.
"Being Christian means sharing the concerns of all, building peace with everyone else, and accepting the sacrifices this implies... the difficulties of daily life, of occupation, of the wall of separation," he said.
"All of this is our common fate, and all of us together, by our sacrifices, we must build peace for everyone."