JERUSALEM (JTA) – Tens of thousands of Christians have gathered in Bethlehem to celebrate Christmas.
The worshipers, who will attend midnight Mass Wednesday night in Manger Square, will be protected by 500 Palestinian Authority policemen.
More than 1.4 million tourists have visited Bethlehem in 2008, a 55 percent increase over the previous year. Hotels in Bethlehem are almost completely filled for the holiday, according to Israel’s Tourism Ministry.
The Israeli defense establishment, the Israel police force, and the Palestinian Authority and its police force have been cooperating to assist the Christian community in celebrating the holiday, according to the Defense Ministry.
Palestinian Christians living in the West Bank, who number about 46,000, or 1.9 percent of West Bank Palestinians, will be permitted to visit relatives in Israel for the holiday, and 300 Palestinian Christians living in Gaza are scheduled to visit their families in the West Bank, the Defense Ministry announced earlier in the week. Israeli Arabs also will be allowed access to Bethlehem, which is under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority.
"There is not just an atmosphere of peace but an atmosphere of trust for the whole world to see," said Raphael Ben-Hur, the Tourism Ministry’s senior deputy director general. "Trust between Israelis, Palestinians and pilgrims from across the globe. Truly, an environment of peace, quiet and trust is good for all people."