- Title: WEST BANK: Christian pilgrims flock to Bethlehem amid heavy security
- Date: 25th December 2009
- Summary: MARCHING BAND WALKING DOWN STREET
- Embargoed: 9th January 2010 12:00
- Topics: Religion
- Reuters ID: LVADSAR63MBDAUH9UH67ZU6K12R2
- Story Text: Thousands of Christian pilgrims joined hundreds of Palestinian security men in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on Thursday (December 24) to prepare for Christmas celebrations in the town revered as Jesus' birth place.
Between 40,000 to 50,000 tourists from around the world are expected to visit Bethlehem for the Christmas celebrations this year, according to Kholoud Daibes-Abu Dayyeh, the Palestinian Authority's minister of tourism.
The town's Mayor Victor Batarseh said the Israeli-built separation wall negatively affects all aspects of life in the city.
"Yes, our people are still under sanctions. This separation wall is separating the city. Unfortunately there were no changes on the siege, there are more restrictions. It is negatively affecting the economy of the city, the health of the people living here, and all sectors of this holy city," said Batarseh outside the Church of Nativity, where Christians believe Jesus was born.
Israel began building its barrier of fences and walls at the height of the Palestinian uprising, which began in 2000 and it now runs along most of the West Bank border, at many points encroaching into West Bank territory.
Israel says it was built to prevent suicide bombers entering Israel and has largely succeeded in doing so, but Palestinians see it as an attempt to seize land on which they aim to establish an independent state.
In a non-binding decision in 2004, the International Court of Justice said the barrier was illegal and should be taken down because it crossed occupied territory.
Ibrahim Faltas, the Palestinian Authority's representative of the "Di Terra Santa", an organisation in charge of the holy places in the region, called upon the world for attention.
"Our message to the whole world is to care about this country. The entire world will be looking towards Bethlehem city, also caring about visiting the city. We invite all the tourists and the pilgrims from all over the world to visit this holy city, the capital of the birthplace (Jesus). Our message to the Palestinians and Israelis is that they should find a solution for these tough negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis. Our message to the Palestinian people is that year 2010 will be the year of unity and reconciliation," he said.
From early morning tourists gathered at Manger Square in front of the church to watch Palestinian security men deploy outside the Biblical site, take pictures and enjoy the festive atmosphere.
"It's an amazing feeling because it's Christmas and a dream comes true for me to be here today," said Tanya Katsa, a tourist from Germany visiting the town.
Pilgrims, tourists and Bethlehem residents will attend annual Christmas midnight mass later on Thursday, presided over by the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fuad Twal.
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