The largest number of pilgrims in a decade have gathered in Bethlehem to celebrate Christmas, with tens of thousands flocking to the Church of the Nativity — built on the site where tradition holds Jesus was born — for prayers yesterday morning.
Israeli military officials, who coordinate movement in and out of the West Bank, said more than 100,000 pilgrims had come to the town since Christmas Eve, compared to about 50,000 last year.
They said this is the merriest Christmas in Bethlehem in years, with the highest number of visitors for the holiday in a decade. The officials were speaking on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk to the media.
Pilgrims and tourists sauntered around Bethlehem, posing for pictures and enjoying the morning sunshine, while others thronged the Church of the Nativity for Mass. Worshipers also packed the Roman Catholic church built next to the grotto where the traditional site of Jesus’ birth is enshrined.
Bethlehem experienced a slowdown in pilgrims following the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising in 2000.
The warm weather, a sharp decline in Israeli-Palestinian violence and an economic revival in the West Bank all added to the holiday cheer.
Pilgrims have slowly been returning to Bethlehem with violence between Palestinians and Israelis easing over the past five years.
The town’s 2,750 hotel rooms were booked solid for Christmas week, and town officials say more hotels are under construction.