Sunday, December 25, 2005

Christmas Sign of Hope

Christmas spirit, joy returns to Bethlehem

from DetNews

Holiday spirit returned to Bethlehem on Saturday for the first time in six years as thousands of foreigners and local people packed the town of Jesus' birth for Christmas Eve celebrations.

Lining the streets on a crisp, windy day, pilgrims gathered in Manger Square near the Church of the Nativity -- built over the grotto where tradition says Jesus was born -- to watch a procession of marching bands, bagpipe players and Boy Scout troops.

They also watched Jerusalem's Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, the top Roman Catholic official in the Holy Land, enter town for the Christmas celebrations.

Whipping winds blew the hats off Boy Scouts and police officers and knocked down metal security barriers. Yet the streets were packed with visitors excited about spending the holiday in one of Christianity's holiest sites.

More than 30,000 people were expected in what would be the largest turnout since fighting erupted in September 2000, although the bleak gray concrete slabs of Israel's separation barrier at the entrance to town provided a looming reminder of the conflict.

Israel's summer withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and a sharp drop in violence this year contributed to the joyful atmosphere, which buoyed the spirits of Bethlehem residents and tourists in the festively decorated town.

"It's really amazing. When you hear about all the conflict between Israel and Palestine, really I was expecting things to be a little bit -- rougher," said Stephen Ogden, 23, of Knoxville, Tenn


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