Bethlehem (AsiaNews/Agencies) – A record number of pilgrims took part in Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem as tens of thousands of the faithful crowded the Church of the Nativity and Manger Square. Israeli military officials, who coordinate movement in and out of the West Bank, said over 100,000 pilgrims came to the town since Christmas Eve, compared to about 50,000 last year.
They also said this was the merriest Christmas seen in Bethlehem in years with the highest number of visitors for the holiday since 2000 when the second intifada began.
There were so many people that many pilgrims had to follow Christmas services from Manger Square in front of the Basilica of the Nativity.
This year’s record comes after a rebound began five years ago as the level of violence between Israeli and Palestinians decreased.
At present, only a third of Bethlehem’s 50,000 residents is Christian. In 1950, Christians represented 75 per cent of the population, but war and economic hardships have pushed many to leave.
However, the local economy has been picking up and the recovery of religious tourism is an indication of the turnaround.
The town's 2,750 hotel rooms were booked solid for Christmas week, and town officials say more hotels are under construction.
Nevertheless, signs of past violence are everywhere. Visitors entering the town must cross through a massive metal gate in the separation barrier Israel built between Jerusalem and Bethlehem following a wave of Palestinian attacks a few years ago.