Christmas celebrated in Holy Land amid Jerusalem tensions

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Palestinian Christian scouts perform at the Manger Square outside the Church of the Nativity as people gather for Christmas celebrations in the town of Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Dec. 24, 2017. (AFP Photo)
Palestinian Christian scouts perform at the Manger Square outside the Church of the Nativity as people gather for Christmas celebrations in the town of Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Dec. 24, 2017. (AFP Photo)

Palestinian scouts played drums and bagpipes as Christmas celebrations began in Bethlehem on Sunday, but many tourists stayed away with tensions still simmering following Washington's decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

The controversial Dec. 6 announcement by U.S. President Donald Trump unleashed demonstrations and clashes, including in the Israeli-occupied West Bank city Bethlehem, where Christians will mark the birth of Jesus in a midnight mass.

The Christmas procession led by Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa started at noon from Jerusalem. The highest-ranking Roman Catholic official in the Holy Land drove to the biblical town of Bethlehem, in the West Bank just south of Jerusalem.

Later Sunday choirs will sing carols in Manger Square and at midnight Pizzaballa, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, will conduct mass in the Church of the Nativity, built according to tradition on the site of the stable where Jesus was born.

On Bethlehem's Manger Square, dozens of Palestinians and tourists gathered excitedly in the cold near a huge nativity scene and Christmas tree to watch the annual scout parade.

They took pictures as scouts, some playing bagpipes, marched through the square towards the Church of the Nativity, built over the spot where tradition says Mary gave birth to Jesus.

Celebrations were to culminate at the church later on Sunday with midnight mass.

The square is usually thronging with tourists on Christmas Eve, but clashes between Palestinian protesters and the Israeli army in the past weeks have kept people away this year.

Nahil Banura, a Christian woman from Beit Sahur, a town near Bethlehem, said Trump's decision had made the run-up to Christmas "miserable."

"People are only going out to vent," said the 67-year-old, whose granddaughter wore a Santa Claus hat and clutched a pink balloon.

Perhaps as few as 50,000 Palestinian Christians make up just around two percent of the predominantly Muslim population of the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

Extra police

Pizzaballa, apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, has said "dozens" of foreign visitors had canceled their Christmas trips after Trump's announcement.

But Israel's tourism ministry has said Christmas preparations have not been affected, and it expects a 20 percent increase in the number of Christian pilgrims this year compared with 2016.

The ministry said it would operate a free shuttle service for the short distance between Jerusalem and Bethlehem for mass.

An Israeli police spokesman said that extra units would be deployed in Jerusalem and at the crossings to Bethlehem to ease the travel and access for the "thousands of tourists and visitors."

However, shop owners who cater to pilgrims in Jerusalem's Christian Quarter said that business is unusually slow during the Christmas period and they blamed a recent decision by Trump declaring Jerusalem as Israel's capital for the drop.

Israel seized east Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war and later annexed it, in moves never recognized by the international community.

Palestinians view east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state, and interpreted Trump's statement as rejecting their right to a capital in east Jerusalem, although the Americans deny this.

In a statement before Christmas, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas said Trump's announcement "encouraged the illegal disconnection between the holy cities of Bethlehem and Jerusalem, both separated for the first time in over 2,000 years of Christianity."

Abbas called on "world Christians to listen to the true voices of the indigenous Christians from the Holy Land... that strongly rejected the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital."

"They are the descendants of the first followers of Jesus Christ and an integral part of the Palestinian people," Abbas said, calling the local Christian community "an inherent part of our societies."

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