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Crowds throng Bethlehem on Christmas Eve

BETHLEHEM, West Bank--Thousands of Christian pilgrims from around the world packed the West Bank town of Bethlehem for Christmas Eve celebrations on Tuesday, bringing warm holiday cheer to the biblical birthplace of Jesus on a cool, clear night.

The heavy turnout, its highest in years, helped lift spirits in Bethlehem as leaders expressed hope that the coming year would finally bring the Palestinians an independent state of their own.

“The message of Christmas is a message of peace, love and brotherhood. We have to be brothers with each other,” said Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal, the top Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land, as he arrived in town.

Excited tourists milled about the town's Manger Square, stopping in restaurants and souvenir shops and admiring a large, illuminated Christmas Tree. Marching bands and scout troops performed for the visitors in the streets, and on a stage next to the tree.

Will Green of New York City, along with his wife, Debbie, and their 2-year-old daughter Daphne were among the crowds of people who greeted Twal's motorcade as he entered town from nearby Jerusalem.

Green said that being in Bethlehem for Christmas was a dream come true. “All the stories that we grew up with. It's here. It's part of our life. We heard them in the family, school and church. This is the birthplace,” he said.

Green slowly pushed a stroller and his wife held their daughter as they followed a crowd toward the Church of the Nativity, built on the site where Christians believe Jesus was born.

Palestinian dignitaries greeted Twal at the entrance of Bethlehem. His motorcade crawled through the town's narrow streets as he stopped to shake hands and greet the throngs of visitors. It took him nearly 90 minutes to make the short trip to celebrate Midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity compound.

Hundreds of people packed the compound for the service. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the European Union's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, and Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh were among the dignitaries in attendance.

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 Pope ushers in his first Christmas at Vatican 
People gather for Christmas Eve celebrations at Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity in the biblical West Bank city of Bethlehem, believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, on Tuesday, Dec. 24.

(AFP)

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