Pilgrims gather at Jesus’s traditional birthplace in Bethlehem for Christmas

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The first church was built on the site in the fourth century, though it was replaced after a fire in the sixth century. (AFP)
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Bethlehem is buzzing, with more tourists expected this Christmas than have visited in years, but it is causing some unexpected problems. (AFP)
Updated 24 December 2018
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Pilgrims gather at Jesus’s traditional birthplace in Bethlehem for Christmas

  • Bethlehem has seen an increase in visitors this season after several down years due to unrest linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
  • This year, visitors are able to view the Church of the Nativity’s newly restored mosaics

BETHLEHEM, Palestinian Territories: Pilgrims from across the world gathered in Bethlehem on Monday for Christmas Eve, taking in a parade and queueing to see the grotto where Jesus is believed to have been born.
The Palestinian scouts and a bagpipe band paraded in Manger Square across from the Church of the Nativity, built at the traditional site of Jesus’s birth.
Crowds, some wearing Santa hats or holding balloons, looked on at the square decked out with a giant Christmas tree and a manger as carols in Arabic played through speakers.
The Catholic archbishop for the Holy Land, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, was due to arrive in the afternoon and will later lead midnight mass.
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas was to be among dignitaries attending the mass.
This year, visitors are able to view the Church of the Nativity’s newly restored mosaics after they were recently cleaned and repaired in a major project.
The first church was built on the site in the fourth century, though it was replaced after a fire in the sixth century.
A newer and more spacious church, St. Catherine, is located next door.
“It’s a great opportunity to be in such a symbolic location for Christmas,” said Lea Gudel, a 21-year-old French exchange student studying in Jerusalem and who was in Manger Square on Monday morning.
Bethlehem, located in the occupied West Bank near Jerusalem but cut off from the city by Israel’s separation barrier, has seen an increase in visitors this season after several down years due to unrest linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Palestinian tourism officials and hotel operators have reported their strongest season in years.
“This year is much more calm, much better than last year,” said Abeer Nasser, a Palestinian from the nearby town of Beit Sahour who was with her son and daughter and was planning to attend midnight mass.
“Every year I feel more in the mood to celebrate despite the political situation,” the 37-year-old added, referring to the Israeli occupation.


Israel braces for more wildfires as temperatures spike

Updated 43 min 55 sec ago
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Israel braces for more wildfires as temperatures spike

  • Thousands of people were evacuated from their homes on Thursday as fires raged
  • The fires were fueled by high temperatures and dry condition

JERUSALEM: Israel is bracing for renewed wildfires amid a major heat wave that shows no signs of abating.
Thousands of people were evacuated from their homes on Thursday as fires raged, fueled by high temperatures and dry conditions.
The EU ambassador, Emanuele Giaufret, said Israel had asked for international help to combat the fires, and aid was arriving on Friday from Cyprus and Italy.
Plumes of smoke rose from hillsides in the country’s center and south as firefighters worked into the early hours to control the blaze.
The cause of the blaze remains unclear, but it erupted following the Jewish festival of Lag Ba’Omer, which observers mark with bonfires.
A sweltering heat wave is pushing temperatures in parts of the country up to 110 degrees Fahrenheit, or 43 Celsius.