Recent violence sparked by US President Donald Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital has put a damper on Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem. Still, scores of people took part in Christmas Eve festivities.
Although no violence was reported on Sunday, crowds celebrating Christmas Eve in the Holy Land were reportedly thinner than in previous years.
Palestinian officials scaled back celebrations in protest against US President Donald Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital on December 6. The controversial decision triggered violent demonstrations and clashes in the area, including in Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
"We decided to limit the Christmas celebrations to the religious rituals as an expression of rejection and anger and sympathy with the victims who fell in the recent protests," said Bethlehem mayor Anton Salman.
Some 50,000 Palestinian Christians make up around two percent of the predominantly Muslim population of the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
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Despite tensions in the area, hundreds of people, including tourists, gathered on Bethlehem's Manger Square to watch the annual scout parade. Marching bands passed through the streets towards the Church of the Nativity, which tradition says is built over the spot where Mary gave birth to Jesus.
Claire Degout, a French tourist, said Trump's decision would not dampen her spirit to celebrate Christmas in the Holy Land.
"The decision of one man cannot affect all the Holy Land," she said. "Jerusalem belongs to everybody, you know, and it will be always like that, whatever Trump says."
Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, administrator of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, said last week that "dozens" of foreign visitors had cancelled their trips to the Holy Land after Trump's announcement.
Despite his criticism of the US president, Pizzaballa visited the Church of Nativity Sunday afternoon and greeted the crowd.
"I already said the message. Now it's time to enjoy. We are Christians and we will enjoy, despite all the difficulties we have. Merry Christmas," he told visitors.
The Israeli government said Christmas festivities in Jerusalem had not been affected by the recent events. The Jewish country's tourism ministry reported a 20 percent increase in the number of Christian pilgrims compared to last year.
Israeli authorities, however, have beefed up security in Jerusalem and at Bethlehem border crossings.
"We've reinforced our troops, and are ready for any scenario," Lieutenant Colonel Benny Meir told media.
shs/jm (AP, AFP)