Pilgrims from around the world flocked to Bethlehem on Monday for what was believed to be the West Bank city's largest Christmas celebrations in years. Hundreds of locals and visitors milled in Manger Square as bagpipe-playing Palestinian Scouts paraded past a giant Christmas tree. Crowds flooded the Church of the Nativity, venerated as the traditional site of Jesus's birth, and waited to descend into the ancient grotto. Palestinian Tourism Minister Rula Maaya said all Bethlehem hotels were fully booked, and the city was preparing to host an "astounding" 10,000 tourists overnight. "We haven't seen numbers like this in years," she said, adding that the 3 million visitors this year exceeded last year by hundreds of thousands. Linda Selbmann, 24, of Germany, said she had long dreamed of celebrating Christmas in Bethlehem. "It's wild to be in the place it all began," she tells the AP.
Solemn nuns and enthused tourists crossed themselves as they entered the church, the air thick with incense. Christmas traditionally brings a boost of cheer to Christians in the Holy Land, whose numbers have shrunk relative to the general population and now make up just a minority. As the sun set on Manger Square, the enormous Christmas tree lit up and the city's ancient passageways shone with colored lights and flashing crosses. Choirs sang carols, their voices echoing through the plaza. Palestinian youths peddled Santa hats to tourists and shop windows bore signs reading "Jesus Is Here." Palestinian security stationed around the square reminded visitors that amid the merriment, they couldn't quite escape the city's political reality. Others seemed unconcerned by recent violence. "This has been No. 1 on my bucket list," said Yohannes Denu, 42, of Los Angeles. "There's no better place to be as a Christian. ... To be at the center of my faith, it's joyous, it's unbelievable."
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