Bethlehem sends signal of hope with quiet Christmas celebrations

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BETHLEHEM, West Bank (Reuters) - The Palestinian town of Bethlehem celebrates Christmas Eve on Thursday with only small numbers attending the traditional events due to COVID-19 restrictions, but town leaders say they are determined to send a message of hope.

Just 12 months ago, Bethlehem, revered as the birth place of Jesus, was celebrating its busiest festive season for two decades, amid a sustained drop in violence and a corresponding surge in the number of pilgrims and tourists.

But now, hotels that were adding new wings in 2019 are shuttered and many festivities will be followed mostly online.

Nevertheless, aware that the world's eyes are upon their town at this time of year, Bethlehem's leaders say they want to be a beacon of hope.

"There are restrictions on the movement of people and on social networking but it is Christmas, Christmas gives people hope for better times," said Mayor Anton Salman, standing next to the huge Christmas tree in Manger Square.

"So we are celebrating the holiday in all means, the only thing missing at this stage is the big crowd, like it used to be in the previous years, but people in Bethlehem are optimistic that the future will be better."

The newly-appointed Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, who himself contracted the virus and recovered, will lead this year's reduced celebrations, but 85-year-old Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will be absent from the annual Midnight Mass at the Nativity Church, a Palestinian official said.

(Reporting by Mohammed Abu Ganeyeh, Mustafa Abu Ganeyeh, Lee Marzel, Rinat Harash; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)