The main colors of Christmas Eve in Bethlehem this year were purple, red, black and green - the hues of the berets of hundreds of soldiers dispatched to provide security in the holy town.

Only a few dozen tourists were seen as the Roman Catholic Patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabah, arrived in Bethlehem to open the Christmas season in the Holy Land.A light drizzle fell as a procession of priests led Sabah through Manger Square and into the Church of the Nativity, built over the grotto where tradition holds that Christ was born.

A strike called by the leadership of the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip closed all shops and restaurants in Bethlehem.

There were no holiday decorations as officials of this town of 40,000 canceled most celebrations in solidarity with the 3-year-old revolt.

The Tourism Ministry predicted that fewer than 7,000 people would visit Bethlehem this year, down from 10,000 last year.

Tourism in Israel has been cut in half by the Persian Gulf crisis, and many of the Arab hotels in Jerusalem that cater to Christian pilgrims are shut because of too few guests.

Bethlehem's Palestinian mayor, Elias Freij, issued a statement praying for "peace on earth and goodwill toward all people and peace in the Holy Land between Israelis and Palestinians, and peace amongst all the Arabs."

Freij, however, blamed the lack of tourists on a U.S. State Department warning for Americans not to travel to the Middle East.

"It is the fault of the American greed to fight for the oil in Kuwait and to disregard the human rights of all people here," he said.

Before the uprising, thousands of pilgrims would gather for the holiday in Bethlehem and elsewhere.

Gabriele Beitz, a tourist from Heidelberg, Germany, was visiting along with her husband and 11-year-old daughter, and said she was frightened at "finding the streets so empty, it is a very, very fearful situation."

"We are very depressed about the place and about the whole political situation here," she said. "For us, Christmas is an event of peace, and here you cannot feel peace."

In Manger Square, Sabah was greeted by the Israeli military governor of Bethlehem, Dudu Mufaz. The greeting is a tradition that stretches back to the times when the Turks and then the British ruled Palestine.

As a Christmas gesture, the military announced it was releasing 217 Palestinian prisoners arrested during the uprising.

Despite the lack of tourists, an Israeli-sponsored choir concert was going ahead. But only one visiting choir, from the First United Methodist Church of Oklahoma City, was to take part in the event.