- Associated Press - Friday, December 24, 2010

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) — The traditional birthplace of Jesus is celebrating its merriest Christmas in years, as tens of thousands of tourists thronged Bethlehem on Friday for the annual holiday festivities in this biblical West Bank town.

Officials said the turnout was shaping up to be the largest since 2000.

Unseasonably mild weather, a virtual halt in Israeli-Palestinian violence and a burgeoning economic revival in the West Bank all added to the holiday cheer.

By nightfall, a packed Manger Square was awash in red, blue, green and yellow Christmas lights.

Merrymakers blasted horns, bands sang traditional Christmas carols in Arabic, boy scout marching bands performed and Palestinian policemen deployed around the town to keep the peace.

A group of 30 tourists from Papua New Guinea, all wearing red Santa hats, walked around the nearby Church of the Nativity, built on the site where tradition holds Jesus was born. Both church officials and the Palestinian president voiced hopes for peace.

Pat Olmsted, a 64-year-old teacher from Sugar Land, Texas, was celebrating her first Christmas in Bethlehem and broke into tears as she stood in Manger Square. “It just gives me a whole true meaning of the Bible. As I read the pages, it will mean so much more to me,” she said.

Bethlehem used to attract tens of thousands of tourists from around the world for Christmas celebrations, but attendance dropped sharply following the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising in 2000.

As the fighting tapered off over the last five years, attendance steadily climbed. The town’s 2,750 hotel rooms were booked solid for Christmas week, and town officials say more hotels are under construction.

Israeli officials have said they expect about 90,000 visitors in Bethlehem during the current two-week holiday season, up from 70,000 last year.

But the bloodshed has left its mark. Visitors entering the town must cross through a massive metal gate in the separation barrier Israel built between Jerusalem and Bethlehem during a wave of Palestinian attacks last decade.

The Roman Catholic Church’s top clergyman in the Holy Land, Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal, crossed through the gate in a traditional midday procession from Jerusalem. Later, he celebrated Midnight Mass, the peak of the holiday’s events in town.

In his homily, Twal issued a conciliatory call for peace between religions and urged an “intensification” of dialogue with Jews and Muslims.

“We need to unite and integrate the many values we have in common: prayer, piety, fasting, almsgiving, and ethical values,” he said.

“Our hope for Christmas is that Jerusalem not only become the capital of two nations, but also a model for the world, of harmony and coexistence of the three monotheistic religions,” he added. “During this Christmas season, may the sound of the bells of our churches drown the noise of weapons in our wounded Middle East, calling all men to peace and the joy.”

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