Receive breaking news and special reports. The news and stories that mattered delivered the weekday mornings.
By Associated Press
BETHLEHEM, West Bank ̵
Hundreds of locals and overseas visitors collapsed in Manger Square as Palestinian scouts playing bagpipe passed a giant Christmas tree. Crowds flooded the Nativity, which was revered as the traditional site of Jesus' birth, and waited to descend into the ancient grotto.
Palestinian Tourism Minister Rula Maaya said that all hotels in Bethlehem are fully booked and the city is preparing for it "amazing" 10,000 tourists overnight.
"We have not seen such numbers for years," she said, adding that the 3 million visitors to Bethlehem this year exceeded hundreds of thousands in the previous year.
Nuns and enthusiastic tourists crossed themselves and crossed themselves over their rosaries as they entered the church, filling the air with incense.
Linda Selbmann, 24, from Chemnitz, said she had long dreamed of celebrating Christmas in Bethlehem.
"It's wild to be in the place where it all started," she said, drinking Turkish coffee in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary that cradled the baby Jesus.
The Christmas festivities traditionally bring a holiday mood For the Christians in the Holy Land, whose numbers have declined in comparison to the population over the decades and now only represent a minority.
As the sun set in Manger Square, the huge Christmas tree lit up and the city's old passages glowed with colored fairy lights and flashing crosses. Choirs sang classical carols and hymns, and their voices echoed across the square.
Palestinian youth wore Christmas hats to tourists and shop windows with signs saying "Jesus Is Here" featuring olive wood figurines and other souvenirs.
The Supreme Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land entered Bethlehem after crossing an Israeli military checkpoint in Jerusalem.
At midnight mass in the Nativity, Pizzaballa addressed a packed house of worshipers and dignitaries, including Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah.
Pizzaballa said the recent restoration of the church is a metaphor for recent events in the region.
"The mosaics were great, but covered by a layer of dirt," he said at the beginning of his sermon.
"The last year was terrible," Pizzaballa said, referring to the increase in violence between Israelis and Palestinians, "we all tend to think that everything is dirty, but when you remove that layer of dirt, we see how wonderful the mosaics are. "
" Since Christmas is, we must be positive, "said the Archbishop.
Palestinian security personnel and vehicles operating around the Stationed around, the visitors reminded them that they could not quite stand amidst the hustle and bustle Escape from the political reality of the city: Bethlehem is in the Palestinian-controlled West Bank area, and much of the city lies behind the dividing line of Israel.
"Last year was worse because the injustice was so obvious," Maaya said The Tourism Minister referred to the decision by US President Donald Trump to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, to annoy the Palestinians and to ignite disputes. "But this year it does not feel so different, we're still busy, and we're always in trouble," she said.
Monjed Jadou, a resident of Bethlehem, said he had an impressive number of foreigners in the country Square noticed the crowds of Palestinian visitors seemed thinner than usual 19659007] "Here, security is tighter than it has been lately, and the streets feel less secure. I think people are scared, "he said, adding that his friends from the city of Ramallah in the West Bank decided not to come because the Israeli army had blocked the roads around the city.
In the West Bank violence has increased in the West In recent weeks, two fatal shootings have been carried out against Israeli soldiers and settlers alleged by the Islamic militant group Hamas, and Israel has halted security at checkpoints as it continues its search for alleged Palestinian aggressors
Other visitors appeared to be unconcerned by recent violence in the area.
"This was the No. 1 on my list," said Yohannes Denu, 42, from Los Angeles. "There's no better place to be Being a Christian brings me back to all the rich stories that I heard growing up. To be the center of my faith, it is joyous, unbelievable. "
In anticipation of the Midnight Mass in the Church of the Nativity, the culmination of the Christmas celebrations, Palestinians and pilgrims circle in groups, some singing" Mute. "Night" and the wearing of candles.
"This is a day to celebrate," Maaya said, "and we hope to one day celebrate like everyone else."