BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) — Hundreds of worshippers, dressed in their holiday best and clutching umbrellas to shield them from a lashing rain, packed the church on Bethlehem's Manger Square Sunday to celebrate Christmas Mass at Jesus' traditional birthplace.
Inside St. Catherine's Church on Manger Square, worshippers — some dressed in the traditional attire of foreign lands — raised their voices in prayer, kissed a plaster statue of a baby Jesus and took communion. The church is attached to the Church of the Nativity, which is built over a grotto where devout Christians believe Jesus was born.
"Lots of pilgrims from around the world are coming to be here on Christmas," said Don Moore, 41, a psychology professor from Berkeley, Calif., who came to Bethlehem with his family. "We wanted to be part of the action. This is the place, this is where it all started. It doesn't get any more special than that."
Crowds in the West Bank town of Bethlehem this Christmas are the largest in more than a decade.
Like the rest of the West Bank, the town fell on hard times after the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation broke out in late 2000. But as violence has subsided over the years, tourists have returned in large numbers. An estimated 100,000 visitors streamed into Manger Square on Christmas Eve, up from 70,000 the previous year, according to the Israeli military's count.
For Christmas day Mass, the church was packed and the overflow crowd waited eagerly in an arched corridor for a chance to enter.
But with the heavy rains, Manger Square outside with its 50-foot-tall (15-meter-tall) Christmas tree, was left deserted.
Most visitors entering Bethlehem, including the top Roman Catholic official in the Holy Land, Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal, had to cross through an Israeli-controlled checkpoint to reach the town on Christmas Eve.
Twal, a Palestinian citizen of Jordan, celebrated Midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity. In his homily, he referred to the Arab Spring, imploring Arab leaders to have "wisdom, insight and a spirit of selflessness toward their countrymen" and praying for reconciliation in Syria, Egypt, Iraq and North Africa.
He also noted the Palestinian campaign to join the United Nations, and complained that the U.N. was "less than united" in its support for the now-stalled initiative. With peace talks at a standstill, the Palestinians are seeking membership as a state in the United Nations and recently gained admission to UNESCO, the U.N. cultural agency.
The patriarch criticized the international community for pushing the Palestinians to "re-engage in a failed peace process" which has "left a bitter taste of broken promises and of mistrust."
The Palestinians have subtly tried to draw attention to their plight with this year's Christmas slogan, "Palestine celebrating hope," a veiled reference to U.N. recognition bid.
Late Saturday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told a meeting of Christian leaders that he is committed to reaching peace with Israel.
"I hope they will come back to their senses and understand that we are seekers of peace, not seekers of war or terrorism," said Abbas, a Muslim like most Palestinians. "The mosque, church and synagogue stand side by side in this Holy Land."
Although civil affairs in Bethlehem on Jerusalem's southeastern outskirts are run by Palestinian authorities, security control remains in the hands of Israel, which built a barrier around three sides of the town to keep Palestinian attackers out.
The Christmas season is essential for Bethlehem's economy, which depends heavily on tourism. Palestinians say the barrier has badly hurt Bethlehem's economy by severely restricting movement in and out of the town.
Twenty-two percent of Bethlehem residents are unemployed, the Palestinian Authority says. Israeli settlements surrounding Bethlehem have added to the sense of confinement.
The patriarch lamented the Israeli barrier enveloping Bethlehem.
"Let us tear down the walls of our hearts in order to tear down the walls of concrete," he said, and prayed for peace for both Palestinians and Israelis.
On Christmas Eve, thousands of Palestinians from inside West Bank also converged on the town. Among the visitors were a surprisingly large number of veiled Muslim women with their families, out to enjoy an evening out in what is normally a quiet town.
"We love to share this holiday with our Christian brothers," said Amal Ayash, 46, who came to Manger Square with her three daughters, all of them covered in veils. "It is a Palestinian holiday and we love to come here and watch."
Vendors hawked balloons and corn on the cob, and bands played Christmas songs and tourists packed cafes that are sleepy the rest of the year.
Israel allowed about 500 members of Gaza's tiny Christian minority to travel through its territory to the West Bank to celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem. Most of Gaza's 3,000 Christians belong to the Greek Orthodox denomination, which celebrates Christmas next month.
Today, only about one-third of Bethlehem's residents are Christian, reflecting a broader exodus of Christians from the Middle East in recent decades. Overall, just 60,000 Christians live in the Palestinian territories, making up less than 2 percent of the population, according to Palestinian officials.