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Bethlehem sees record pilgrimage crowd for Christmas
BETHLEHEM, West Bank -- The largest number of pilgrims in a decade have gathered in Bethlehem to celebrate Christmas, with tens of thousands flocking to the Church of the Nativity, built on the site where tradition holds Jesus was born, for prayers Saturday morning.
Israeli military officials, who coordinate movement in and out of the West Bank, said more than 100,000 pilgrims have come to the town since Christmas Eve, compared to about 50,000 last year.
They said this is the merriest Christmas in Bethlehem in years and the highest number of visitors for the holiday in a decade. The officials were speaking on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk to the media.
Pilgrims and tourists sauntered around Bethlehem, posing for pictures and enjoying the morning sunshine, while others thronged the Church of the Nativity for Mass. Worshippers also packed the Roman Catholic church built next to the grotto where the traditional site of Jesus' birth is enshrined.
Bethlehem experienced a slowdown in pilgrims following the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising in 2000.
The warm weather, a sharp decline in Israeli-Palestinian violence and an economic revival in the West Bank all added to the holiday cheer.
Pilgrims have slowly been returning to Bethlehem since violence between Palestinians and Israelis slowed down over the past five years. The town's 2,750 hotel rooms were booked solid for Christmas week, and town officials say more hotels are under construction.
Signs of the violence are still present, however. Visitors entering the town must cross through a massive metal gate in the separation barrier Israel built between Jerusalem and Bethlehem during a wave of Palestinian attacks last decade.
The Israeli military said it attacked a "terror training facility" and a weapon smuggling tunnel in Gaza overnight. The coastal area's Hamas rulers said nobody was hurt in the Israeli airstrikes.
Only one-third of Bethlehem's 50,000 residents are Christian today, down from about 75 percent in the 1950s. The rest are Muslims.
Some 500 members of the Gaza Strip's small Christian minority left the blockaded territory on Thursday for the festivities in Bethlehem. About 3,500 Christians live in Gaza among 1.5 million Muslims. Relations were traditionally good, but there have been incidents of violence against Christians since the Islamic militant group Hamas took control three years ago.
Christians only make up about 2 percent of the population in the Holy Land today, compared to about 15 percent in 1950. Like many other Christian communities across the Middle East, many have migrated because of political tensions or for better economic opportunities.
This year, Christmas was marred by violence in the Philippines. A bomb exploded during Christmas Day Mass at a police chapel in the volatile southern Philippines, wounding a priest and five churchgoers.
The improvised explosive was hidden in the ceiling of the chapel, which is located inside a police camp in Jolo town on Jolo Island, a stronghold of al-Qaida-linked militants.