Thousands visit Bethlehem on Christmas Eve

Foreign, local pilgrims visit biblical town on eve of traditional mass; Mayor Victor Batarseh expresses hope that near future will bring Palestinian state
Associated Press


Thousands of pilgrims, tourists and local Christians gathered in the biblical West Bank town of Bethlehem on Saturday to begin


„We are celebrating this Christmas hoping that in the near future we’ll get our right to self-determination our right to establish our own democratic, secular Palestinian state on the Palestinian land. That is why this Christmas is unique,” Batarseh told The Associated Press.


IDF eases travel restrictions for holiday

Bethlehem is urrounded on three sides by a barrier built to stop Palestinian militants from attacking Israel. Palestinians say the barrier damaged their economy.


Earlier this week, the IDF announced a series of measures aimed to ease the travel for Palestinian Christians. As part of the „trust-building” effort, pilgrims of all ages were to be issued permits to travel from the West Bank to Israel, and up to 400 were to be permitted to leave the country through Ben Gurion Airport for the holiday.


Moreover, up to 500 Christians from the Gaza Strip, under the age of 16 and over the age of 45, were to be allowed to travel to Israel and the West Bank for religious ceremonies and to visit family.


The number of Christians in the West Bank is on the decline. While some leave for economic reasons, many speak of persecution by the Muslim majority, but always anonymously, fearing retribution.


Christians have even lost their majority in Bethlehem, where more than two-thirds of the some 50,000 Palestinian residents are now Muslim.


The biblical town was bustling on Saturday, however, with Christian tourists and pilgrims.

„This is my first time in Bethlehem and it’s an electrifying feeling to be here at the birthplace of Jesus during Christmas,” said 49-year-old Abraham Rai from Karla, India.