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Bethlehem welcomes pilgrims for Christmas celebrations

Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the most senior Roman Catholic official in the Middle East, to lead midnight mass on Tuesday evening in city where Jesus believed born

A Christian Armenian priest blesses the Church of the Nativity in the biblical West Bank city of Bethlehem on December 23, 2019. (AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP)
A Christian Armenian priest blesses the Church of the Nativity in the biblical West Bank city of Bethlehem on December 23, 2019. (AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP)

The biblical city of Bethlehem, revered by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus, was preparing Monday to welcome pilgrims from around the world to celebrate Christmas in the Holy Land.

The “little town” in the Israeli-controlled West Bank is planning festivities in and around the Church of the Nativity, built on the site where Christians believe Jesus was born.

On Monday afternoon, hundreds of tourists and locals gathered in the square outside the church, where a 15-meter (50-foot) Christmas tree had been erected.

Children dressed as Santa Claus played while workers made final preparations to speakers and televisions, as Christmas music filled the square.

A Palestinian wearing a Santa Claus costume welcomes Christian visitors outside the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed by Christians to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, December 5, 2019. (Majdi Mohammed/AP)

Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem and the most senior Roman Catholic official in the Middle East, was due to travel from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on Tuesday morning.

He will lead midnight mass in the Church of the Nativity, with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas expected to attend.

The first church was built on the site in the fourth century, though it was replaced after a fire in the sixth century.

Bethlehem is close to Jerusalem, but cut off from the holy city by Israel’s security barrier, which it says is designed to prevent West Bank terrorists from carrying out attacks on its territory.

Fewer Christians from the Gaza Strip will attend the ceremony than in previous years, as Israel granted permits to just around 200 of the some 900 people who applied, said Wadie Abunassar, an adviser to church leaders in the Holy Land.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, left, congratulates Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the top Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land after attending a Christmas midnight mass at Saint Catherine’s Church, in the Church of the Nativity, traditionally recognized by Christians to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, December 25, 2018. (Nasser Nasser/AP)

The Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza are separated by Israeli territory and crossing between them requires hard-to-get permits.

On Sunday, a statement from COGAT, the Defense Ministry body responsible for the permits, said some would be granted “in accordance with security assessments.”

Gaza is ruled by the Islamist terror group Hamas, which Israel accuses of abusing the permit system to plan attacks against its citizens.

Abunassar said Christmas remained a time for hope.

“The Holy Land is not only the site of the birth and crucifixion (of Jesus), it is also the place of resurrection,” he told AFP.

“Despite all challenges, difficulties, pain and problems we are facing, we keep the hope in God and people.”

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