(Photo: Reuters/Ammar Awad)
Thousands of Christians have embarked on their annual Christmas pilgrimage Monday Dec. 24 to Manger Square in Bethlehem, just south of Jerusalem on the Palestinian-controlled West Bank, to honor the place commonly acknowledged as the biblical birthplace of Jesus Christ.
Approximately 15,000 pilgrims arrived in Bethlehem on Monday to participate in a massive celebration orchestrated by the Palestinian Authority, which administers the West Bank.
Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal, a revered Roman Catholic cleric in the area, told those in attendance at Monday's event that the purpose of the gathering was to celebrate "the birth of Christ our Lord and the birth of the state of Palestine."
This year is especially joyous for many Palestinians because as of November 2012, the majority of United Nations member states recognized Palestine as its own independent state.
The main event at the Dec. 24 celebration will occur at a midnight mass on Monday evening at the Church of the Nativity, which is supposedly the exact place Jesus was born.
Many gathered at Monday's event expressed their excitement to various media outlets.
"It's a special feeling to be here, it's an encounter with my soul and God," Joanne Kurczewska, a professor at Warsaw University in Poland, told AP of her second Christmas trip to Bethlehem.
Others, however, have trouble imagining what Bethlehem would have looked like during biblical times.
"I find it quite difficult to make the connection between this place and the place of Jesus' birth," Nick Thompson, from New Zealand, told Voice of America.
"You've really got to do some quite hard imagining to sort of think back two millennia and imagine what this might have been like," Thompson added.
Monday's celebration, which had a predicted attendance drop compared to last year's attendance due to recent fighting on the Gaza Strip, also included the singing of Christmas carols and a procession from Jerusalem's Old City to the West Bank's city of Bethlehem.