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(photo credit: AP)
Hundreds of Christian pilgrims celebrated Jesus' birth on Tuesday in the West Bank town where he was born, in an atmosphere made markedly cheerier by the renewal of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks after years of bloody conflict.
By midday, the ancient Church of the Nativity was packed with tourists waiting in line to see the grotto that marks the traditional birthplace of Jesus.
The visit to Bethlehem was a first for Kiel Tilley, 23, a science teacher from Charlevoix, Michigan.
"It's very powerful and meaningful to me," Tilley said. "It's very moving to visit a place which I always read about in the Bible."
The re-launch of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks at a US-sponsored conference last month reassured him before his trip, he said.
"I'm always in fear something would happen," Tilley said. "But the peace process made me feel safer."
Hundreds of people from all over the world crowded the church's dark interior. Some stopped to look at part of the original floor about 50 centimeters (two feet) below the current one, exposed in a fenced-off section in the middle of the church.
Some of the tourists inside the church sported Santa hats, and one carried the national flag of Indonesia, a country whose population of 235 million is nearly 95 percent Muslim.
The church, first built in the 4th century, looks like a fortress. Two rows of columns line each side of the long, narrow central hall.
Some visitors entered from the side after the end of the Christmas mass at the adjacent Church of St. Catherine, conducted by the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah. Others ducked through the low entrance from Manger Square. Catholic prelates in the 16th century blocked most of the original gate to keep enemy soldiers from riding their horses into the church in a sign of disrespect, according to one explanation for the tiny entrance.
A group of about 100 Catholics from around the world gathered outside the church, singing Christmas songs in different languages, to the accompaniment of guitars and drums, and doing circle dances. A crowd of about 200 onlookers, some clapping to the music, formed around them.
Vendors mingling with the crowd in Manger Square hawked rosaries, handcrafted bags, popcorn, steamed corn and Turkish coffee.
The large numbers of visitors and the cacophony of languages was evidence that more tourists came to Bethlehem this year than in the past several years.
According to border police, who monitored the entry of visitors into Bethlehem, 22,000 tourists had crossed over by midday, including about 7,000 Israeli Arabs.
The outbreak of the 2000 intifada and the fighting that followed had clouded Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem for years, battering the tourism industry that is the city's lifeline. Although holiday tourism numbers were still off from the tens of thousands who visited in the peak years of the late 1990s and the 2000 millennium, they were up from recent years, when just a few thousand tourists trickled in.
For all of 2007, "the tourism situation in Bethlehem was great," said Fadel Badarin, chief of the Palestinian tourism police.
According to tourism police statistics, about 450,000 foreigners visited Bethlehem this year, up from 295,000 in 2006, Badarin said.
Bethlehem's governor, Saleh Tamari, said all of the town's 5,000 hotel rooms were booked.
Moussa Azein, a 40-year-old tea vendor who lives in a village near Bethlehem, said business picked up this year. "This is the best year since the uprising began," Azein said.
Azein's tea business reflected the enduring conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. He used to work as a painter in Israel for 10 years to support his wife and seven children, but has been unemployed since 2002, when Israel began building a massive separation barrier along and inside the West Bank. He no longer can travel to Israel for work.
The declared purpose of the barrier is to keep out West Bank attackers, but because it dips into West Bank territory, Palestinians see it as a land grab.
Steve Dintaman, 56, of Harrisonburg, Virginia, was seeing Bethlehem for the first time. He said he enjoyed the visit, but felt that the trip wasn't necessary to feel the spirit of Christ.
"I don't identify Christ so much with the location, as with the person who is a part of my life and a part of many people's life, but it's still historically significant, and it's wonderful to see," Dintaman said. "I hope this isn't heretical - I don't feel any closer to God here than I do at home."
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