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Christmas

Christmas crowds flock to Bethlehem

Thousands of people have flocked to the West Bank city of Bethlehem for festive celebrations. Believed to be the birthplace of Jesus, the city comes alive at this time of the year and hosts a Christmas procession.

The event brought together Christians and Muslims, and Manger Square outside Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity was been packed all day Monday with pilgrims.

Musicians and youth choirs kept the crowds entertained with performances on a large outdoor stage. Earlier, thousands of tourists and Palestinians lined the route of the traditional Christmas procession from Jerusalem, which was headed by the Roman Catholic Church's highest representative in the Holy Land, Latin Patriarch Fuad Twal.

The highlight was the traditional midnight mass at the Church of the Nativity, and although a Muslim, the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas attended - a precedent set by his predecessor Yasser Arafat.

Tourism in Bethlehem soars at this time of year. The Palestinian tourism minister Roula Ma'aya says hotels are fully booked, and the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce says it expects between 10-15,000 thousand foreign tourists in the city.

However, the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza is still in the minds of many, as is the upgrading of Palestine's status to a non-member observer state at the UN.

Musicians perform on stage in Manger Square, outside the Church of the Nativity, the site revered as the birthplace of Jesus, on Christmas eve in the West Bank town of Bethlehem December 24, 2012. REUTERS/Ammar Awad (WEST BANK - Tags: RELIGION)

Musicians perform in Manger Square

"It's just a really happy time for us, people are happy and excited. It's particularly special this year because it comes after the UN gave us the state status," Taghreed Rishmawi, a 20-year-old biology student from Bethlehem, told the news agency AFP.

"That decision gave us hope, and we feel that the world sees us as a state now."

Latin Patriarch Fuad Twal made mention of the Israel-Gaza conflict in his Christmas homily, calling for peace.

"From this holy place, I invite politicians and men of good will to work with determination for peace and reconciliation that encompasses Palestine and Israel in the midst of all the sufferings in the Middle East," he said.

Twal recognized the suffering of Palestinians under Israeli occupation, saying "we live under very difficult conditions and an unending Israeli occupation."

He also called for prayer for the people of Egypt "who are fighting for national agreement, freedom and equality," and "for unity and reconciliation in Lebanon, in Iraq, in Sudan, in the other countries of the region and the rest of the world. Let us pray for stability and prosperity in Jordan."

jr,dr/mz (AFP, dpa)