The Palestinian town in the Israeli-occupied West Bank is enjoying its busiest Christmas in years, with hotels nearly fully booked and the security situation relatively calm.
Lines of pilgrims squeezed through a narrow sandstone entrance to the Church of the Nativity to visit the grotto where Christian faithful believe Jesus was born.
“This place is wonderful. I feel like the real Christmas (is celebrated) here,” said Joseph Ahlan, a pilgrim from Malaysia.
Maria Moeva, a visitor from Bulgaria, said she could feel “all the passion of the people who are here to celebrate the birth of Christ”.
The acting Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, led an annual procession from Jerusalem to Bethlehem and will later celebrate Midnight Mass in the Church of the Nativity, originally built in the 4th century.
In Manger Square, visitors were entertained by choirs singing carols, bagpipe players and a Palestinian scouts’ marching band.
While the security situation has eased since a wave of Palestinian knife and car-ramming attacks in 2015, Israeli roadblocks and a six-metre Israeli-built concrete separation barrier that snakes around the town are still part of the Bethlehem vista.
Palestinians see the barrier as a land grab, in territory they are seeking as part of a state of their own. Israel, which captured the West Bank in a 1967 war, says the fences and walls it has erected help prevent Palestinian attacks.
(Writing by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Editing by Hugh Lawson)