Thousands of faithful celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem

AP-Mideast Israel Palestinians
A Christian worshipper prays after lighting a candle on Christmas Eve at the Church of the Nativity, built atop the site where Christians believe Jesus Christ was born, in the West Bank City of Bethlehem, Saturday, Dec. 24, 2016. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) — Thousands of pilgrims and tourists from around the world together with locals began Christmas Eve celebrations in Jesus’ traditional birthplace of Bethlehem on Saturday, raising spirits after a tense year that saw a spike in violence between Palestinians and Israelis.

The faithful braved the chilly weather outside Manger Square as traditional Christmas songs like “Jingle Bells” played in Arabic over loudspeakers and scout groups paraded with bagpipes and sang carols. Ecstatic tourists and local Christians alike wandered around the square illuminated by festive lights and a large Christmas tree, visiting souvenir shops and restaurants. The Palestinian tourism minister said hotels were at full occupancy in the West Bank biblical town.

Christian clergymen welcomed the top Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land inside the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, the birth places of Jesus Christ, as Christians worldwide begin to prepare to celebrate Christmas this year.

The Rev. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarchate, is the temporary chief clergyman to the local Catholic population. He traveled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on Saturday in a traditional procession.

“I am happy that the war, at least the military war, in Aleppo is finished and that for the first time in Aleppo the Christians can celebrate without fear the Christmas season. I wish that they can now reconstruct, rebuild the city, not only the infrastructure but also the common relations that was a tradition over there,” he told The Associated Press.

The Syrian government assumed full control of Aleppo earlier this month when rebels, including some Islamic militants, agreed to withdraw from their last remaining enclave after more than four years of heavy fighting over the country’s largest city.

Christmas festivities brought a boost of holiday cheer to Christians in the Holy Land that endured a wave of violence that erupted over a year ago. In that time, Palestinian attackers killed 36 Israelis and two visiting Americans in stabbings, shootings and vehicular ramming assaults. At least 229 Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire in that same period, mostly attackers Israel says.

Israel says the violence is fueled by a Palestinian campaign of incitement by religious and political leaders compounded on social media sites that glorify attacks. Palestinians say it stems from frustration at nearly five decades of Israeli rule in territory they claim for a state.

Elsewhere in the region, the Middle East’s dwindling Christian community has suffered persecution at the hands of Islamic State extremists.