BETHLEHEM, Palestinian Territories — Bethlehem hosted a record number of pilgrims this Christmas, Palestinian officials said Saturday as tens of thousands flocked to celebrate in the birthplace of Jesus.
With thousands still heading to the West Bank city on Christmas Day, officials said the numbers may have even surpassed the 90,000 predicted by the Palestinian Authority ahead of the Holy Day.
"This is the first year that Bethlehem has hosted so many people," Bethlehem city official George Saade told AFP. However, he said they did not yet have exact figures.
The Israeli military, which controls the main checkpoint leading into the city, also said it did not yet have the numbers.
In the wake of the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising in 2000, the spectre of unrest and violence kept tourists away, leaving the "little town" deserted on Christmas for several years.
However, 2010 was the third straight year Bethlehem has seen record numbers of pilgrims and tourists returning. Officials said all of Bethlehem's 24 hotels were fully booked.
The Christmas season caps a year of unprecedented tourism for Bethlehem and the Palestinian territories, where visitor revenues are sorely needed.
Herve, a French tourist in town with his wife and three children, said the experience was a "magical and mysterious moment."
"It's been a dream for a long time to be here for Christmas," he told AFP.
"It's a night of communion with the whole world and it's a very nice Christmas gift for my family."
Tens of thousands of Palestinians from the West Bank and Arab Israelis were also expected in Bethlehem, along with several hundred from the tiny Christian community in Gaza who were able to secure rare Israeli entry permits for the holiday.
The visitors who packed Manger Square on Friday enjoyed the festive atmosphere, taking pictures and fighting off the crisp night air with steaming boiled corn-on-the-cob and cups of sweet Arabic coffee from dozens of vendors.
Others managed to attend midnight mass in St. Catherine's Church, next to the Church of the Nativity, where the Middle East's senior Catholic cleric called for peace and reconciliation in the region.
"During this Christmas season, may the sound of the bells of our churches drown the noise of weapons in our wounded Middle East," Latin Patriarch Fuad Twal told an audience that included Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.
As peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians remain stalled, Twal also offered a vision of a better, more peaceful future.
"Our hope for Christmas is that Jerusalem not only becomes the capital of two nations, but also a model for the world, of harmony and coexistence of the three monotheistic religions."
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