The largest number of pilgrims in a decade gathered in Bethlehem to celebrate Christmas, with tens of thousands flocking to the Church of the Nativity for prayers this morning. Israeli military officials, who coordinate movement in and out of the West Bank, said more than 100,000 pilgrims have come to the town since Christmas Eve, compared to about 50,000 last year. Father Juan Maria Solana, from Jerusalem, said the beautiful day was "a good sign of serenity, a good sign of peace."
The town's 2,750 hotel rooms were booked solid for Christmas week. The warm weather, a sharp decline in Israeli-Palestinian violence and an economic revival in the West Bank all added to the holiday cheer this year. Only one-third of Bethlehem's 50,000 residents are Christian today, down from about 75% in the 1950s. The Palestinian tourism police chief said of the throng of visitors, "We have passed the bad years." The Catholic Church's top clergyman in the Holy Land, Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal, issued a call for peace during his homily: "During this Christmas season, may the sound of the bells of our churches drown the noise of weapons in our wounded Middle East, calling all men to peace and the joy."