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Christian Pilgrims Converge on Bethlehem

Christian pilgrims from around the world converged on Bethlehem on Monday to celebrate the birth of Jesus — the first such large-scale gathering in the West Bank town since fighting erupted in 2000.

Bethlehem Mayor Victor Batarseh predicted earlier this month that the lull in violence would help to bring about 65,000 tourists to visit the traditional site of Jesus' birth this Christmas — four times the number who trickled into town for Christmas in 2005.

Gray concrete walls measuring about 25 feet high enclose Bethlehem on three sides, part of the separation barrier that Israel says it's building to keep out attackers from the West Bank.

170,000 Christians in Israel

Palestinians allege that the complex of concrete slabs and electronic fence, which dips into parts of the West Bank, is a thinly veiled land grab.

Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, the Roman Catholic Church's highest official in the Holy Land, could only reach Bethlehem after passing through a massive steel gate in the barrier. An escort of Israeli mounted policemen led Sabbah, in his flowing gold and burgundy robe, up to the gate, where border policemen waited to clang it shut behind him.

Last week, Sabbah waded into the charged debate over Israel's Jewish character by alleging that Israel's identity as a Jewish state discriminates against non-Jews.

"If there's a state of one religion, other religions are naturally discriminated against," Sabbah, the first Palestinian to hold the position, told reporters at his annual pre-Christmas news conference. Israel rejected his claim that people of other faiths do not enjoy equal rights.

According to the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations, there are an estimated 170,000 Christians in Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Mood Somber in Gaza Strip

In the Gaza Strip, the mood was much more somber than in Bethlehem. Festivities in the poverty-stricken territory's tiny Christian community of 3,000 were decidedly muted.

For decades, Christmas had been marked by an enormous, lavishly decorated tree in Gaza City's main square, colored lights strung across the plaza and Christmas carols ringing out from loudspeakers. Shopkeepers did brisk business selling decorations, cards and gifts. All this cheer evaporated with the outbreak of fighting between Israelis and Palestinians in late 2000.

The grimness only deepened this year with the assassination of a prominent Christian activist, Rami Ayyad, after Islamic Hamas militants overran the coastal strip. There were few outward signs of celebration, and an austere midnight mass was planned at the city's only Roman Catholic church.

Hamas has denied involvement in Ayyad's killing and vowed to find those responsible for his slaying in October.

Early Monday, hundreds of Gaza Christians lined up at the passenger crossing between Gaza and Israel, hoping to be allowed to cross over to the West Bank to celebrate in Bethlehem. Many of those who hoped to leave said they didn't plan to return.

Israel said it would allow in 400 Christmas celebrants from Gaza.

From NPR reports and The Associated Press