- Title: WEST BANK: Pilgrims flock to most peaceful Bethlehem in years
- Date: 25th December 2007
- Summary: WORSHIPPERS AT MASS SABBAH LEADING MASS
- Embargoed: 9th January 2008 12:00
- Topics: Religion
- Reuters ID: LVA6BE18OPD1L82119ZT5D7LKQVA
- Story Text: Pilgrims crowd Bethlehem's Nativity Church for Christmas day mass during the most peaceful holiday season in years.
Pilgrims crowded the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem on Christmas Day, Tuesday (December 25) during the most peaceful holiday season in recent years.
Christmas carols played in a packed Manger Square and thousands of foreign tourists and Palestinians crowded in and around the Church of the Nativity for Christmas day mass led by the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Michel Sabbah at the spot revered as Jesus's birthplace.
It was the most peaceful and profitable Christmas in Bethlehem for years and local officials say tourist numbers are the best since before a Palestinian uprising erupted in 2000.
Ahead of the festivities, Palestinian security forces, many carrying newly issued rifles, took up positions on the streets of Bethlehem in numbers not seen in years.
Bethlehem was hard hit when tourism slumped during the early years of the Palestinian uprising, or Intifada.
Most residents still cannot work in Jerusalem and travel freely to other Palestinian towns because of Israeli restrictions and a barrier which cuts into West Bank land that Palestinians want for a state.
Israel allowed dozens of Christians from Gaza to travel to Bethlehem to take part in the festivities.
Tourism, the lifeblood of Bethlehem's economy, has improved as Western powers seek to bolster Palestinian Mahmoud Abbas in his power struggle with Hamas Islamists who took over the Gaza Strip in June.
After battling for years to fill rooms, many Bethlehem hotels were fully booked for Christmas.
But local leaders remain cautious. Tourism numbers still hover at just 60-70 percent of pre-Intifada levels, and many Western governments still warn against non-essential travel.
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