BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) — Several thousand Christian pilgrims on Wednesday flocked to the biblical town of Bethlehem for Christmas Eve celebrations at the traditional birthplace of Jesus, lifting spirits after a year of conflict and failed peace efforts.
The central Manger Square was decked out in white and yellow lights and a towering Christmas tree. On a cool, clear night, there was a carnival atmosphere: Vendors hawked corn, candied apples, watches, and balloons in the shape of cartoon characters.
Scout troops played bagpipes, horns and drums, and bands from around the world performed on a stage, singing Christmas carols and original Christmas rock ballads, mostly in English. A recording of "Feliz Navidad" blasted through the speakers, too. A Palestinian host welcomed members of Gaza's tiny Christian community, who were permitted to cross through Israel to the West Bank, eliciting whistles and applause.
"My son and I and my husband came for Christmas to see, you know, be right here where it all took place," said Irene Adkins, 63, from Lorain, Ohio, as she sat in a Bethlehem visitor's center. "It feels wonderful."
The celebrations brought a boost of holiday cheer to the area after a difficult year. Israeli-Palestinian peace talks collapsed last spring, and Israel battled Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip during a 50-day war over the summer. Elsewhere in the region, the Middle East's dwindling Christian community has suffered persecution at the hands of Islamic State extremists.
For residents of the Palestinian town of Bethlehem, an independent state is as elusive as ever. The Church of the Nativity, built over the grotto that Christians believe is the site of Jesus' birth, was flanked by the towering Christmas tree and a large poster in Arabic and English that read "All I want for Christmas is justice."
"Our message this Christmas is a message of peace like every year, but what we added this year is that all we want from Christmas is justice. Justice for our people, justice for our case and the right to live like all other people in the world in our independent state without the occupation," said Palestinian Tourism Minister Rula Maayah.
Police and local officials said just 4,500 international tourists visited Bethlehem this year, less than half last year's number. By nightfall, perhaps 2,000 people remained in the square, most of them local Palestinians.
Fadi Kattan, a Palestinian tourism expert, blamed the downturn on the summer war in Gaza.
"Image, image, image," Kattan said. "We're looking at the attack in Gaza affecting the image of this (place) as a destination."
A wave of unrest in Jerusalem, just a few miles away from Bethlehem, also has deterred visitors.
Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal, the top Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land, led a procession from his Jerusalem headquarters into Bethlehem, passing through Israel's concrete separation barrier, which surrounds much of the town. Israel built the barrier a decade ago to stop a wave of suicide bombings. Palestinians view the structure as a land grab that has stifled the town's economy.
In his homily at Midnight Mass, Twal called for Jews, Muslims and Christians in the Holy Land to "live together as equals with mutual respect," according to a translation released by his office. "But in fact, this Holy Land has become a land of conflict."
He lamented the Gaza war and recent unrest in Jerusalem, which included a deadly Palestinian attack on a synagogue. "The whirlwind of death continues to strike and to crush!" he said.
Twal appealed for reconstruction of war-torn Gaza, which has been delayed, to proceed. He also urged Israel to halt plans to extend its separation barrier in the Bethlehem area that would separate dozens of Christian Palestinian families from their lands.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a Muslim, joined the celebrations on Wednesday evening and called for an end to "extremism and terror." Abbas is locked in a power struggle with the Islamic militant group Hamas, which remains in control of the Gaza Strip even after agreeing to the formation of a unity government with Abbas early this year.
Sheldon Way, 22, of Delano, Minnesota, said the celebrations were different than what he was used to, but that he nonetheless enjoyed himself.
"Growing up in Canada and the northern U.S., Christmas was full of snow. But here everyone's outside, there's music," said Way, who came to celebrate with his mother. "It's different from what I'm used to. But it's cool."