The diverse mix of people included festive American tourists, clergymen in brown flowing robes and Palestinian scouts wearing kilts and playing bagpipes.
"I'm Catholic. I always wanted to see the beginning of Christianity, the whole history. It's something you grow up with," said Kristin Obeck, a 37-year-old schoolteacher from Richmond, Va.
Despite the festive atmosphere, a heavy police deployment, the presence of Israel's massive separation barrier and unease among Bethlehem's ever-shrinking Christian population served as reminders of the lingering tensions in the region.
In his Christmas homily during Midnight Mass, Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah delivered a politically charged appeal for peace and love in the Holy Land — and independence for the Palestinian people.
"This land of God cannot be for some a land of life and for others a land of death, exclusion, occupation, or political imprisonment," said Sabbah, the first Palestinian to hold the position of top Roman Catholic official in the Holy Land.
In the years following the 1993 Oslo peace accord, Bethlehem attracted tens of thousands of tourists for Christmas. But the number of visitors plummeted after the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising in 2000.
Tourism has begun to recover in recent years as fighting has slowed. This year, it got a boost from the renewal of peace talks last month at a summit in Annapolis, Md.
While many celebrants appeared to be curious teenagers and other local residents, Israeli tourism officials said they expected some 20,000 visitors to cross from Jerusalem into neighboring Bethlehem. They said that was an increase of about 50 percent over last year, though well below the peak years.
Güncelleme Tarihi: 25 Aralık 2007, 17:39