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Bethlehem's population swells as pilgrims arrive for Christmas celebration

Catholic World News - December 20, 2012

Thousands of Christian pilgrims are gathering in Bethlehem for Christmas celebrations, as the city enjoys a respite from years of political struggle.

Reservations for Christmas pilgrimages to the Holy Land dropped off in November when Israeli and Palestinian forces in Gaza exchanged artillery fire, but the influx of visitors has resumed, and Israeli officials expect 75,000 people in Bethlehem from Christmas.

The Israeli tourism ministry has arranged free bus shuttles from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day to accommodate the visitors. The ministry estimates that Israel will have welcomed 3.3 million tourists in 2012, an increase of nearly 1 million over the previous year. Nearly two-thirds of these visitors are Christian pilgrims.

Latin-rite Patriarch Fouad Twal of Jerusalem will preside over the Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem, which begin with a procession into the city and continues with midnight Mass at the Nativity basilica. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is expected to attend the Christmas Mass along with the city’s political leaders.

Pilgrims are already lining up for a chance to visit the grotto in the Nativity basilica, traditionally recognized as the site where Jesus was born. The basilica only holds about 1,500 people, a fraction of the total who will be on hand for the Christmas celebration.

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