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Christmas Cheer in Bethlehem as Tourist Numbers Continue to Grow

BETHLEHEM (AFP) – Preparations for Christmas are in full swing at the site of Jesus’s birthplace, with Bethlehem shops, hotels and church officials bracing for more visitors than 2015, when violence put a damper on celebrations.

At Manger Square next to the Church of the Nativity, built on the site where Christians believe Jesus was born, the annual giant Christmas tree covered in gold ornaments is in place.

A handful of Palestinians could be seen taking pictures near the tree on Wednesday while a number of tourists were walking around the city, located a short drive from Jerusalem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Celebrations in Bethlehem culminate with midnight mass on Christmas eve in the Church of the Nativity.

But beyond that, tens of thousands of tourists are expected to visit sites including Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Nazareth over the holidays, tourism officials say.

Israel’s tourism ministry said some 120,000 visitors were expected in December, half of them Christians.

Palestinian officials said they were expecting more visitors than last year, with hotels in Bethlehem booked.

“There is more stability this year and the numbers coming out of the tourism ministry are showing that there will be growth between 2015 and 2016,” said Sami Khoury, who runs the Visit Palestine online tourism portal.

“There are more bookings this year. A lot of people are coming this month and the hotels are booked.”

Khoury was not able to provide specific figures.

There is more optimism this year in Israel and the West Bank after a wave of violence and protests that erupted in October 2015 sharply reduced visits for Christmas.

The violence saw knife, gun and car-ramming attacks by Palestinians targeting Israelis.

Many of the Palestinian assailants were killed by Israeli forces while others were shot dead during clashes and protests.

The violence has greatly subsided in recent months, though tourists will still have to cross Israel’s West Bank separation barrier to reach Bethlehem.

Israel has occupied the West Bank for nearly 50 years.

For Wahid Al-Laham, a Bethlehem shop owner selling Christmas memorabilia and decorations, shopping has been better than last year but still falls short in comparison to previous years.

Christmas shopping “was half the rate of previous years, but 80 percent higher than compared to 2015,” he said.

– Christian ‘tragedy’ –

But while Israel and the West Bank have seen less violence this year, Christians across the wider Middle East were facing a “tragedy,” a leading church figure said in Jerusalem on Monday.

Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, pointed specifically to Syria and Iraq.

The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem heads the Roman Catholic Church in the Holy Land.

Pizzaballa said up to two-thirds of Christians have left in Iraq and Syria, citing in particular Aleppo — the previously mixed city in northern Syria which has been devastated by more than five years of civil war.

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