BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) — Thousands of pilgrims, tourists and local Christians gathered in the biblical West Bank town of Bethlehem on Saturday to begin Christmas Eve celebrations in the traditional birthplace of Jesus.
Visitors gathered near the 50-foot (15-meter) Christmas tree at Manger Square Saturday morning, taking pictures and enjoying the sunshine.
The main event will be Midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity, built over the location where Jesus is believed to have been born.
Israel's Tourism Ministry said it expects 90,000 tourists to visit the Holy Land for the holiday. Ministry spokeswoman Lydia Weitzman said that number is the same as last year's record-breaking tally, but was surprisingly high considering the turmoil in the Arab world and the U.S. and European economic downturns.
Bethlehem Mayor Victor Batarseh said he hopes this year's celebrations will bring Palestinians closer to their dream of statehood. With peace talks stalled with Israel, Palestinians this year made a unilateral bid for recognition at the United Nations and were accepted as a member by UNESCO, the U.N. cultural agency.
"We are celebrating this Christmas hoping that in the near future we'll get our right to self-determination our right to establish our own democratic, secular Palestinian state on the Palestinian land. That is why this Christmas is unique," Batarseh told The Associated Press.
Bethlehem is today surrounded on three sides by a barrier Israel built to stop Palestinian militants from attacking during a wave of assaults in the last decade. Palestinians say the barrier damaged their economy.
Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal, the Roman Catholic Church's head clergyman in the Holy Land, crossed through a massive metal gate in the barrier, in a traditional midday procession from Jerusalem on Saturday.
"We ask the child of Bethlehem to give us the peace we are in desperate need for, peace in the Middle East, peace in the Holy Land, peace in the heart and in our families," Twal said before heading to the Church of the Nativity, where he was to celebrate Midnight Mass.
The number of Christians in the West Bank is on the decline. Their fragile status in a majority Muslim society, ongoing Israeli-Palestinian violence and better economic opportunities abroad have led many of them to leave for the United States, South America and Europe.
Christians have even lost their majority in traditionally Christian Bethlehem, where more than two-thirds of the 50,000 Palestinian residents are now Muslim.
The biblical town was bustling on Saturday, however, with Christian tourists and pilgrims.
"This is my first time in Bethlehem and it's an electrifying feeling to be here at the birthplace of Jesus during Christmas," said 49-year-old Abraham Rai from Karla, India.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.