Pilgrims gather at Jesus’s traditional birthplace for Christmas
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Pilgrims gather at Jesus’s traditional birthplace for Christmas

Palestinian scouts and a bagpipe band parade in Manger Square across from the Church of the Nativity, as Bethlehem gets into the spirit for Christian festival

  • Worshippers pray inside the Church of the Nativity in the biblical West Bank city of Bethlehem, on December 24,2018. (HAZEM BADER/AFP)
    Worshippers pray inside the Church of the Nativity in the biblical West Bank city of Bethlehem, on December 24,2018. (HAZEM BADER/AFP)
  • A Christian worshipper sits inside the Church of the Nativity in the biblical West Bank city of Bethlehem, on December 24,2018. (HAZEM BADER/AFP)
    A Christian worshipper sits inside the Church of the Nativity in the biblical West Bank city of Bethlehem, on December 24,2018. (HAZEM BADER/AFP)
  • A priest prays inside the Nativity church in the West Bank town of Bethlehem.December 24,2018. (HAZEM BADER/AFP)
    A priest prays inside the Nativity church in the West Bank town of Bethlehem.December 24,2018. (HAZEM BADER/AFP)
  • Palestinian female police officers take pictures inside the Church of the Nativity in the biblical West Bank city of Bethlehem, on December 24, 2018. (HAZEM BADER/AFP)
    Palestinian female police officers take pictures inside the Church of the Nativity in the biblical West Bank city of Bethlehem, on December 24, 2018. (HAZEM BADER/AFP)
  • A Palestinian bagpiper blows his instrument as a band performs on Manger square in front of the Church of the Nativity in the biblical West Bank city of Bethlehem, on December 24, 2018. (HAZEM BADER/AFP)
    A Palestinian bagpiper blows his instrument as a band performs on Manger square in front of the Church of the Nativity in the biblical West Bank city of Bethlehem, on December 24, 2018. (HAZEM BADER/AFP)
  • A Palestinian band performs on Manger square in front of the Church of the Nativity in the biblical West Bank city of Bethlehem, on December 24, 2018. (HAZEM BADER/AFP)
    A Palestinian band performs on Manger square in front of the Church of the Nativity in the biblical West Bank city of Bethlehem, on December 24, 2018. (HAZEM BADER/AFP)
  • Christian pilgrims pray inside the Grotto, believed to be the exact spot where Jesus Christ was born, at the Church of the Nativity in the biblical West Bank city of Bethlehem, on Christmas eve, December 24, 2018. (Musa Al SHAER/AFP)
    Christian pilgrims pray inside the Grotto, believed to be the exact spot where Jesus Christ was born, at the Church of the Nativity in the biblical West Bank city of Bethlehem, on Christmas eve, December 24, 2018. (Musa Al SHAER/AFP)
  • Palestinian bagpipers perform on Manger square in front of the Church of the Nativity in the biblical West Bank city of Bethlehem, on December 24, 2018. (Musa Al SHAER/AFP)
    Palestinian bagpipers perform on Manger square in front of the Church of the Nativity in the biblical West Bank city of Bethlehem, on December 24, 2018. (Musa Al SHAER/AFP)
  • Nigerian pilgrims pray inside the Grotto, believed to be the exact spot where Jesus Christ was born, at the Church of the Nativity in the biblical West Bank city of Bethlehem, on the eve of the Christmas celebration, December 24, 2018. (Musa Al SHAER/AFP)
    Nigerian pilgrims pray inside the Grotto, believed to be the exact spot where Jesus Christ was born, at the Church of the Nativity in the biblical West Bank city of Bethlehem, on the eve of the Christmas celebration, December 24, 2018. (Musa Al SHAER/AFP)
  • A Christian worshiper prays at the Grotto, under the Church of the Nativity, traditionally recognized by Christians to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, December 23, 2018. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)
    A Christian worshiper prays at the Grotto, under the Church of the Nativity, traditionally recognized by Christians to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, December 23, 2018. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)
  • Restoration experts work on a mosaic inside the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank City of Bethlehem, December 6, 2018. (Majdi Mohammed/AP)
    Restoration experts work on a mosaic inside the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank City of Bethlehem, December 6, 2018. (Majdi Mohammed/AP)

BETHLEHEM — Pilgrims from across the world gathered in Bethlehem on Monday for Christmas Eve, taking in a parade and lining up to see the grotto where Jesus is believed to have been born.

The Palestinian scouts and a bagpipe band paraded in Manger Square across from the Church of the Nativity, built at the traditional site of Jesus’s birth.

Crowds, some wearing Santa hats or holding balloons, looked on at the square decked out with a giant Christmas tree and a manger as carols in Arabic played through speakers.

The Catholic archbishop for the Holy Land, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, was due to arrive in the afternoon and later lead midnight mass.

President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas was to be among dignitaries attending the mass.

This year, visitors are able to view the Church of the Nativity’s newly restored mosaics after they were recently cleaned and repaired in a major project.

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

A newer and more spacious church, St. Catherine, is located next door.

“It’s a great opportunity to be in such a symbolic location for Christmas,” said Lea Gudel, a 21-year-old French exchange student studying in Jerusalem who was in Manger Square on Monday morning.

Bethlehem, located in the West Bank near Jerusalem but cut off from the city by Israel’s security barrier, has seen an increase in visitors this season after several down years due to unrest linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Palestinian tourism officials and hotel operators have reported their strongest season in years.

“This year is much more calm, much better than last year,” said Abeer Nasser, a Palestinian from the nearby town of Beit Sahour who was with her son and daughter and was planning to attend midnight mass.

“Every year I feel more in the mood to celebrate despite the political situation,” the 37-year-old added, referring to the Israeli presence in the West Bank.

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