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Pilgrims gather at Jesus's birthplace in Bethlehem for Christmas

Palestinian bagpipers perform in Manger square in front of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem on December 24, 2018.
Musa Al SHAER (AFP)
Abbas and other dignitaries to attend annual midnight Christmas mass at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity

Pilgrims from across the world gathered to celebrate Christmas Eve in Bethlehem, queuing to see the grotto where Jesus is believed to have been born.

Christmas celebrations were also underway in Nazareth -- largest Arab city in Israel -- where Christians believe the Archangel Gabriel announced Jesus' birth to Mary and where they believe his childhood home was located.

Hundreds of Palestinian scouts came from across the West Bank to take part in the annual parade through Bethlehem's Manger Square, across from the Church of the Nativity, built atop 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 Bethlehem the afternoon before leading the city's annual midnight mass.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was among dignitaries due to attend the mass.

HAZEM BADER (AFP)

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.

Bethlehem is expecting more tourists expected this Christmas than have visited the Biblical city in years, with the boost attributed primarily to a decrease in violence in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Israel is also enjoying record tourism figures and many visitors take day trips to Bethlehem and other West Bank sites from Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and elsewhere in the Jewish state.

"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.

Tourism in the Palestinian territories suffered a major blow following a fury of demonstrations and clashes sparked by a controversial announcement by President Donald Trump recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital last December, putting a damper on Christmas celebrations.

AP Photo/Nasser Nasser

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," he added.

On Sunday, Palestinian protesters -- some are dressed as Santa Claus -- carried Palestinian flags and chanted anti-Israel slogans during a demonstration outside an Israeli checkpoint in Bethlehem.

Palestinian Christians make up approximately two percent of the predominantly Muslim population of the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

Christians around the world will celebrate Christmas on Monday.

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