Faithful flock to Bethlehem for Christmas

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BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) — Thousands of Christian pilgrims are gathered in the biblical town of Bethlehem for Christmas Eve celebrations.

The central Manger Square is decked out in white and yellow lights, and a towering Christmas tree. And on a cool, clear night there's been a carnival atmosphere. Vendors hawked corn, candy apples, watches and balloons. 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.

One Ohio woman said she, her son and her husband are in Bethlehem for Christmas to "be right here where it all took place." Irene Adkins says, "It feels wonderful."

It's been a difficult year in the region. Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians collapsed last spring, and Israel battled Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip during a 50-day war over the summer.

Elsewhere in the region, a dwindling Christian community has suffered persecution at the hands of Islamic extremists.

%@AP Links

163-a-14-(Rula Ma'ayah (ROO'-lah mah-AY'-yah), Palestinian tourism minister, in AP interview)-"without the occupation"-Palestinian Tourism Minister Rula Ma'ayah says this Christmas season leaves her the fervent hope for a better year ahead. (24 Dec 2014)

<<CUT *163 (12/24/14)££ 00:14 "without the occupation"

162-a-12-(Simon Bassett, British tourist, in AP interview)-"in harmony together"-Simon Bassett, a Christian tourist from Britain, says he brought his daughter to Bethlehem for Christmas. (24 Dec 2014)

<<CUT *162 (12/24/14)££ 00:12 "in harmony together"

APPHOTO DV106: A Palestinian dressed as Santa Claus holds balloons at Manger Square, outside the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed by Christians to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on Christmas Eve Wednesday, Dec. 24, 2014. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed) (24 Dec 2014)

<<APPHOTO DV106 (12/24/14)££

APPHOTO MJ101: Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad Twal, center, arrives at the Church of the Nativity, built atop the site where Christians believe Jesus was born, on Christmas Eve in the West Bank town of Bethlehem on Wednesday, Dec. 24, 2014. Christian pilgrims from around the world have begun to gather in the biblical town of Bethlehem for Christmas Eve celebrations in the traditional birthplace of Jesus. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed) (24 Dec 2014)

<<APPHOTO MJ101 (12/24/14)££

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