BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) - Thousands of tourists, pilgrims and clergy
converged on Bethlehem on Friday as the town of Jesus' birth prepared to
celebrate Christmas Eve.
Boy Scout marching bands played in Manger Square, just outside the Church of the Nativity, which Christian tradition
identifies as the site of Jesus' birth in a stable two millennia ago.
Pilgrims lit candles inside, and Palestinian policemen deployed around
the town to keep the peace.
The Catholic Church's top clergyman in the Holy Land
arrived in Bethlehem in a traditional procession from Jerusalem just
past midday Friday. Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal will later attend midnight mass at the church, the peak of the holiday's events in the town.
The number of tourists visiting Bethlehem has been
steadily rising in recent years, and the town's 2,750 hotel rooms are
booked solid for Christmas week. More hotels are under construction.
About 90,000 visitors are expected in the town during
the Christmas season, up from about 70,000 last year, according to
Israeli government figures.
The numbers have grown as violence in the West Bank
has declined. But the bloodshed has left its mark -- visitors to the town
must cross through a massive metal gate in the separation barrier
Israel built between Jerusalem and Bethlehem during a wave of
Palestinian attacks inside Israel.