Sunday, December 28, 2008

Hundreds pack Bethlehem midnight Mass

http://www.cnn.com/2008/WORLD/meast/12/24/bethlehem.midnight.mass/

Wed December 24, 2008

Hundreds pack Bethlehem midnight Mass
Story Highlights
Hundreds of Christians pack Church of the Nativity Thursday for midnight Mass
The church is thought to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ
Large crowds gathered outside the church -- one of Christianity's most sacred places

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (CNN) -- Hundreds of Christians packed the Church of the Nativity on Thursday for a midnight Mass in what is thought to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ.

A worshipper touches a star at the point where tradition says Jesus Christ was born in the Church of Nativity.

The standing-room-only service included singing and organ music.

There were also large crowds outside the church, one of the most sacred places in Christianity.

So many people had flocked to the area this Christmas season that there were no rooms left at the inns and hotels in Bethlehem.

Some took this as a sign that tourism in Bethlehem was on the upswing.

Christmas is the one time of year when the West Bank's small, shrinking Christian communities show everyone else that they are still there.

Before the midnight Mass, Palestinian scout groups representing Christians throughout the West Bank did as they always do on this day -- they marched, banging their drums loudly and, in a way, trying to make a point. Watch Bethlehem's Christmas celebrations »

The drumbeat has been heard by more and more people, locals say, as tourism has skyrocketed this year.

"This year, tourism is much better than last year -- we reached 1,250,000," said Victor Batarseh, the mayor of Bethlehem. "All our hotels are full around Christmastime. We have 30,000 tourists coming in."

Tourists in record numbers were on hand this year, braving an unusually cold, gray and windy day to watch the parade of drums and holiday songs.

"It's kind of neat to see it in the Middle East, and they're playing Christmas carols and the songs we know," said one American tourist.

"I'm loving it, it's just been an incredible atmosphere and just a wonderful learning experience," said another.

The Latin Patriarch in Jerusalem also came to the birthplace of Jesus, as he does every Christmas Eve, allowed through normally tightly shut gates by Israeli troops.

The heavy security is a testament to ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine.

"My Christmas wish is that we will have real peace, based on justice and freedom," said Mustafa Barghouti, a Palestinian parliament member. "My Christmas wish is that the justice that Jesus Christ gave his life for will happen sometime in his birthplace in Palestine."

CNN's Ben Wedeman contributed to this report.

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