By Robert Berger
There was a big turnout for Christmas celebrations in the West Bank town of Bethlehem.
Christmas Mass was celebrated at the Church of the Nativity, attended mostly by local Palestinian Christians from Bethlehem. A few meters away, thousands of pilgrims lined up to visit the dimly lit grotto where tradition says Jesus Christ was born.
Edward Langerak came from Minnesota in the United States. “Well, it’s exciting. It’s spine-tingling to be at the site that has been so famous for millennia,” Langerak said. “Jesus has meant so much to so many people, including myself, that it’s thrilling enough just from that perspective.”
Bud Wellman, from the U.S. state of Florida, said “My feelings are joy, happiness,” said Wellman. “It’s a faith-builder to know that this was where he was; it’s where our Savior was born and this was where it all started. It’s a moving experience.”
The crowds were a welcome sight for Palestinian shopkeepers in Manger Square, like Nabil Jakaman. “Thank God that we see some tourists in Bethlehem,” said Jakaman.
At the same time, Palestinians in Bethlehem lamented Israel’s separation wall which surrounds the city. Israel constructed the barrier following a wave of suicide bombings, but Jakaman says the wall is collective punishment.
“We are in (a) small prison in Bethlehem. That’s it,” he added. “But we hope one day it will go down like (the) Berlin Wall.”
Still, Christmas was marked by a rare spirit of cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Israeli officials say about 100,000 tourists visited Bethlehem on the holiday, twice as many as last year. A lull in violence brought the biggest turnout in a decade, and it was a peaceful Christmas in the Holy Land.