Pilgrims, clergy come to Bethlehem for Christmas

Palestinian scouts play bagpipes in Manger Square, outside the Church of Nativity, traditionally believed by Christians to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, during a Christmas parade in the West Bank town of Bethlehem on Friday, Dec. 24, 2010.

BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Thousands of tourists, pilgrims and clergy converged on Bethlehem on Friday as the town of Jesus' birth prepared to celebrate Christmas Eve.

Boy Scout marching bands played in Manger Square, just outside the Church of the Nativity, which Christian tradition identifies as the site of Jesus' birth in a stable two millennia ago. Pilgrims lit candles inside, and Palestinian policemen deployed around the town to keep the peace.

The Catholic Church's top clergyman in the Holy Land arrived in Bethlehem in a traditional procession from Jerusalem just past midday Friday. Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal will later attend midnight mass at the church, the peak of the holiday's events in the town.

The number of tourists visiting Bethlehem has been steadily rising in recent years, and the town's 2,750 hotel rooms are booked solid for Christmas week. More hotels are under construction.

About 90,000 visitors are expected in the town during the Christmas season, up from about 70,000 last year, according to Israeli government figures.

The numbers have grown as violence in the West Bank has declined. But the bloodshed has left its mark — visitors to 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 inside Israel.