BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Thousands of pilgrims, tourists and local Christians gathered in the biblical West Bank town of Bethlehem on Saturday to begin Christmas Eve celebrations in the traditional birthplace of Jesus.
Visitors gathered near the 50-foot (15-meter) Christmas tree at Manger Square Saturday morning taking pictures and enjoying the sunshine.
The main event will be Midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity, built over the location where Jesus is believed to have been born.
Israel's Tourism Ministry said it expects 90,000 visitors for the holiday. Ministry spokeswoman Lydia Weitzman said that number is the same as last year's record-breaking tally, but was surprisingly high considering the turmoil in the Arab world and the U.S. and European economic downturns.
Bethlehem Mayor Victor Batarseh said he hopes this year's celebrations will bring Palestinians closer to their dream of statehood. With peace talks stalled with Israel, Palestinians this year made a unilateral bid for recognition at the United Nations and were accepted as a member by UNESCO, the U.N. cultural agency.
"We are celebrating this Christmas hoping that in the near future we'll get our right to self-determination our right to establish our own democratic, secular Palestinian state on the Palestinian land. That is why this Christmas is unique," Batarseh told The Associated Press.
Bethlehem is today surrounded on three sides by a barrier Israel built to stop Palestinian militants from attacking Israel. Palestinians say the barrier damaged their economy.
The number of Christians in the West Bank is on the decline, and many speak of persecution by the Muslim majority, but always anonymously, fearing retribution.
Christians have even lost their majority in Bethlehem where more than two-thirds of the some 50,000 Palestinian residents are now Muslim.
The biblical town was bustling on Saturday, however, with Christian tourists and pilgrims.
"This is my first time in Bethlehem and it's an electrifying feeling to be here at the birthplace of Jesus during Christmas," said 49-year-old Abraham Rai from Karla, India.