Crowds gather in Bethlehem ahead of Christmas mass

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Bethlehem (Palestinian Territories), Dec 24: Crowds gathered in Bethlehem on Saturday for Christmas Eve celebrations ahead of midnight mass at the spot where Christians believe Jesus was born, with more visitors expected than in 2015 due to a drop in violence.

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Dozens of Palestinians and tourists flocked to Manger Square, near the Church of the Nativity, built over the spot where tradition says Mary gave birth to Jesus. Some snapped selfies near the square's giant Christmas tree and watched the annual scouts parade in the city, located a short drive from Jerusalem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Several gather in Bethlehem on Xmas eve

The scouts marched waving flags and playing bagpipe music. Palestinian security forces were deployed in areas leading up to the church and square, conducting searches of some people. Christmas carols in Arabic rang out from speakers.

"It feels pretty awesome. This is my first Christmas away from home... but this is really amazing to be in Bethlehem," said Valeria, a 21-year-old from the US state of Wisconsin. Ramzi Al Durzi, a Christian from Amman, came with his two children to visit relatives in Jifna, a Christian village near Ramallah, and decided to take in the parade.

"This is my first visit to Bethlehem and to Palestine and honestly the atmosphere is really great," he said. Celebrations in Bethlehem culminate with midnight mass at the Church of the Nativity - with the grotto where Jesus is believed to have been born underneath.

Some 2,500 tickets are usually given out for the mass and those wishing to attend must register in advance. Attendees usually include Palestinian officials and foreign dignitaries. Beyond that, tens of thousands of tourists are expected to visit sites including Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Nazareth over the holidays, tourism officials say.

Israel's tourism ministry said some 120,000 visitors were expected in December, half of them Christians. Palestinian officials said they were expecting more visitors than last year, with major hotels in Bethlehem booked.

There is more optimism this year in Israel and the West Bank after a wave of violence and protests that erupted in October 2015 sharply reduced visits for Christmas. The violence saw knife, gun and car-ramming attacks by Palestinians targeting Israelis.

Many of the Palestinian assailants were killed by Israeli forces while others were shot dead during clashes and protests. The violence has greatly subsided in recent months, though tourists will still have to cross Israel's West Bank separation barrier to reach Bethlehem.

PTI

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