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Pilgrims, clergy visit Bethlehem
Town of Jesus' birth draws many
W Mideast Israel Palest Heal
A Catholic pilgrim lights a candle outside of the Grotto at the Church of Nativity, traditionally believed by Christians to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, ahead of the Christmas in the West Bank town of Bethlehem on Friday, Dec. 24, 2010. - photo by Associated Press

BETHLEHEM, West Bank - Thousands of tourists, pilgrims and clergy converged on Bethlehem on Friday as the town of Jesus' birth prepared to celebrate Christmas Eve.

Boy Scout marching bands played in Manger Square, just outside the Church of the Nativity, which Christian tradition identifies as the site of Jesus' birth in a stable two millennia ago. Pilgrims lit candles inside, and Palestinian policemen deployed around the town to keep the peace.

"This is where Jesus Christ was born and walked the earth. So I just want to walk the same earth," said Mary Healy, a tourist from Independence, Missouri, who said she was in Bethlehem for the fourth time.

The Roman Catholic Church's top clergyman in the Holy Land arrived in Bethlehem in a traditional procession from Jerusalem just past midday. Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal was to celebrate Midnight Mass later at the church, the peak of the holiday's events in the town.

As he entered Bethlehem, Twal expressed his traditional wishes for "peace, love and unity among us."

But on an unseasonably warm winter day, when temperatures approached 70 degrees Fahrenheit (20 degrees Celsius), he added another wish to his list, "which is to ask God to send us rain and winter besides peace and justice and dignity for all."

The normally rainy autumn and winter season in the Holy Land has been warm and dry - raising fears that the water shortage plaguing the parched region could worsen next year.

Twal, wearing a purple robe and matching black and purple hat, waving to a large crowd of tourists, clergymen and residents as he marched through Manger Square into the Church of the Nativity.

With a steep drop in Israeli-Palestinian violence, the number of tourists visiting Bethlehem has been steadily rising in recent years, and the town's 2,750 hotel rooms were booked solid for Christmas week. More hotels are under construction.

About 90,000 visitors are expected in the town during the Christmas season, up from about 70,000 last year, according to Israeli government figures. Many visitors enter Bethlehem from neighboring Jerusalem.

But the bloodshed has left its mark. Visitors to the town must cross through a massive metal gate in the separation barrier Israel built between Jerusalem and Bethlehem during a wave of Palestinian attacks inside Israel.

Walking through the gate, Twal said that Christians who make up just 2 percent of the Palestinian population, feel "the same suffering and more" of their Muslim compatriots. "It's our responsibility altogether. God willing, we will give an honorable image to the world looking toward unity, love, hope and steadfastness," he said.

Dampening the holiday cheer, Israeli authorities said two Italian pilgrims were killed Friday afternoon when their car crashed into an electric pole near the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel.

Three other Italian women in the car were hospitalized, said Zaki Heller, spokesman for Israel's rescue service. Officials said the women, in their mid-50s, were in the Holy Land to celebrate Christmas.


Associated press Writer Dalia Nammari contributed to this report.


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