BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) — Hundreds of Christian faithful, defying lashing rains and wind, celebrated Christmas Mass at Jesus' traditional birthplace on Sunday, spirits high despite the gloomy weather.
Worshippers dressed in their holiday best rushed under cover of umbrellas into St. Catherine's Church on Manger Square, leaving the plaza, with its 50-foot-tall (15-meter-tall) Christmas tree, deserted. The church was packed, and the overflow crowd waited eagerly in an arched corridor for a chance to enter.
Inside, supplicants, 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. St. Catherine's is attached to the smaller 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."
With turnout at its highest in more than a decade, proud Palestinian officials said they were praying the celebrations would bring them closer to their dream of independence.
Bethlehem, like the rest of the West Bank, had fallen onto hard times after the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation broke out in late 2000.
Although civil affairs in the biblical town 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.
Palestinians say the barrier has badly hurt its economy, which depends heavily on tourism, by severely restricting movement in and out of the town.
But as the violence has subsided, 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.
With the barrier looming large over the celebrations in Bethlehem, Palestinians have tried to draw attention to their quest for an independent state with this year's Christmas slogan, "Palestine celebrating hope."
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."
Israel had 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.