Bethlehem was jam-packed on Saturday night with thousands of visitors to the birthplace of Jesus to celebrate Christmas.
Star Street, the main passageway through the town’s ancient section, was decorated with festive lights dotting its walls and storefronts, as vendors stood nearby selling traditional Palestinian foods and holiday treats.
At the entrance to Manger Square, the site of the Church of the Nativity where it is believed Jesus was born, Palestinian Authority security forces stood on guard, checking visitors bags, while others watched the square from atop nearby buildings.
A local choir sang traditional Christmas songs in both English and Spanish, as onlookers bundled up in jackets and winter hats sang along with many of the tunes.
Abu Batrous Naameh, a priest from the Syrian Orthodox Church, said “celebrating Christmas in Bethlehem allows one not only to reconnect to the time of the birth of Jesus, but also the place.
“We consider this day as if it were the same day, 2016 years ago, and remember Jesus, who sacrificed himself,” Naameh said, adding that “the new year is an opportunity to make a pledge for peace with all people around the world and in the Holy Land.”
Overlooking Manger Square from the rooftop of the Bethlehem Municipality, Xavier Abu Eid, a Palestine Liberation Organization spokesman, said that Christmas brings together all Palestinians.
“Christmas is for all Palestinians, regardless of religious affiliation, and is a part of our national identity. We are proud that the message of Jesus, which is one of hope, justice, and peace, began here and inspired our people,” Abu Eid stated.
Back in the main square, the crowd was growing as the hour approached for the traditional Midnight Mass.
Abdel Karim, 24, an off-duty policeman, who only shared his first name, said that he and his friends traveled from Hebron to participate in today’s celebration.
“It is an important and beautiful celebration.
We came to share this joy with our Christian brothers,” Abdel Karim remarked. “Christmas is one of the most exciting times in Palestine.”
Bethlehem has seen thousands of tourists come to its historical Christian sites in the past week, as officials expect a slight increase in the number of tourists this year compared to 2015.
Israeli officials said that 120,000 tourists would travel to Israel and the West Bank in December, including 60,000 Christian pilgrims.
Emma Austin, 24, an American student of biblical studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said that she came to feel the Christmas atmosphere.
“It’s really special to be in a place that relates to much of what I study. I am completing the experience,” Austin said near the main stage.
“It’s also a very pretty evening.”