(photo credit: )
Thousands of Christian Arabs marched through the streets of Nazareth on Sunday to celebrate Christmas Eve in the boyhood town of Jesus.
The early-evening celebrants who meandered through the town's narrow streets to a major Christian shrine on a crisp wintry day included hundreds of teenage scouts dressed in uniform, children dressed as Santa Claus, and a marching band playing drums and bagpipes.
"Nazareth is one of the most important tourists sites in the country, and in the entire world," said Nazareth Mayor Ramez Jaraisah during a two-day tourism conference being held in the town intended to boost tourism to the northern town.
"We want to see Nazareth on the tourist map," concurred Tourism Minister Isaac Herzog during a holiday-eve reception with the city's religious leaders at the Basilica of the Annunciation, which was held under a huge stage banner that read 'Visit Nazareth Now.' The Basilica is built on the site where Christians believe that the Angel Gabriel appeared before the Virgin Mary and foretold the birth of Jesus two millennia ago.
Nazareth, which used to be heavily frequented by Israeli Jews on the weekends, has been hardhit by the Palestinian violence over the last six years, with many shops in the Old City forced to close their doors as both Israelis and foreigners stayed away.
With a respite in violence, locals and Tourism Ministry officials are hoping that the coming year will see a resurgence.
Still, only a sprinkling of foreign tourists could be seen walking the streets of Nazareth on Sunday evening as festivities got started.
"It is fantastic and splendid to take part in the holiday in the city of Jesus," said Shady Danial, 17, of Nazareth, who was taking part in the scouts parade, organized by the Catholic Scouts Association.
"I do miss the tourists who have stayed away these last years due to the war situation," he added.
Some 74,000 Israeli Arabs live in Nazareth, two-thirds of whom are Muslim.
Religious tensions have boiled over in the past when the two sides had a heated six-year dispute over attempts by the Muslims to build a large mosque next to the Basilica, one of Christendom's holiest sites.
Israel eventually barred the construction of the
mosque four years ago following severe pressure from the Vatican and a united Christian front against the building project.
While the Christians in Nazareth enjoy freedom of
religion under Israel, the Christian population in
Palestinian-controlled territories, such as Bethlehem, have been facing growing religious pressure from radical Islamic groups like Hamas coupled with the economic and political fallouts of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
The native Palestinian Christian population has dipped below 2 percent of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, down from at least 15 percent in 1950, according to some estimates.
As the cheering holiday procession made its way to the Basilica in Nazareth, the cry of "Allahu Akhbar" or "God is Great" could be heard from a nearby muezzin.
Minutes later, a lavish fireworks display lit up the night sky while the city's church bells tolled.