(Photo: AP/Nasser Shiyoukhi)
The little town of Bethlehem saw the highest number of Christmas pilgrims in a decade, according to the Israeli military.
More than 100,000 people from around the world gathered in the town famous for being the birthplace of Jesus, up from 50,000 the previous year. The increase in tourists is likely due to decrease violence between Palestinians and Israel in recent years.
“This is the first year that Bethlehem has hosted so many people,” remarked Bethlehem city official George Saade to Agence France-Presse.
The number of pilgrims this Christmas surpassed the estimated 90,000 and marks the third straight year in a row that Bethlehem has seen record-high tourists during the holiday. Thousands of pilgrims waited in line to view the dimly lit grotto said to be the birthplace of baby Jesus.
Included among the pilgrims are about 500 Christians from Gaza Strip who were granted a rare holiday entry permit by Israel. There are about 3,500 Christians out of Gaza’s 1.5 million population.
Palestinian officials said all 24 of Bethlehem’s hotels were fully booked. Business owners in Bethlehem, who depend heavily on tourism for income, are happy to see the influx of visitors.
“Thank God that we see some tourists in Bethlehem,” said Nabil Jakaman, according to Voice of America.
The Middle East’s senior Catholic cleric Fuad Twal traveled to Bethlehem from Jerusalem and held a midnight mass at St. Catherine’s Church, next to the Church of the Nativity. Twal called for peace and reconciliation between Israel and Palestinians.
“Our hope for Christmas is that Jerusalem not only becomes the capital of two nations, but also a model for the world, of harmony and coexistence of the three monotheistic religions,” said Twal.
About a third of Bethlehem’s residents are Christians, down from about 75 percent in the 1950s.