Bethlehem: Pilgrims and locals on Tuesday celebrated Christmas Day in the ancient Bethlehem church built over the site where tradition holds Jesus was born, candles illuminating the sacred site and the joyous sound of prayer filling its overflowing halls.
Overcast skies and a cold wind didn`t dampen the spirits of worshippers who came dressed in holiday finery and the traditional attire of foreign lands to mark the holy day in this biblical West Bank town.
Bells pealed and long lines formed inside the fourth-century Church of the Nativity complex as Christian faithful waited eagerly to see the grotto that is Jesus` traditional birthplace.
Duncan Hardock, 24, a writer from MacLean, Va, travelled to Bethlehem from the republic of Georgia, where he had been teaching English. After passing through the separation barrier Israel built to ward off West Bank attackers, he walked to Bethlehem`s Manger Square where the church stands.
"I feel we got to see both sides of Bethlehem in a really short period of time," Hardock said. "On our walk from the wall, we got to see the lonesome, closed side of Bethlehem ... But the moment we got into town, we`re suddenly in the middle of the party."
Bethlehem lies 10 kilometres south of Jerusalem. Entry to the city is controlled by Israel, which occupied the West Bank in 1967.
Hardock`s girlfriend, 22-year-old Jennifer Gemmell of Longmont, Colorado, compared the festive spirit in Manger Square on Christmas Eve, saying "it`s like being at Times Square at New Year`s."
The cavernous church was unable to hold all the worshippers who had hoped to celebrate Christmas Day Mass inside. A loudspeaker outside the church broadcast the service to the hundreds in the square who could not pack inside.
Tourists in the square posed for pictures as vendors hawked olive wood rosaries, nativity scenes, corn on the cob, roasted nuts, tea and coffee.
An official from the Palestinian tourism ministry predicted 10,000 foreigners would visit Bethlehem on Christmas Day and said 15,000 visited on Christmas Eve up 20 per cent from a year earlier.