BETHLEHEM, West Bank - Several thousand Christian pilgrims on Wednesday flocked to the biblical town of Bethlehem for Christmas Eve celebrations at the traditional birthplace of Jesus, lifting spirits after a year of conflict and failed peace efforts.
The central Manger Square was decked out in white and yellow lights and a towering Christmas tree. On a cool, clear night, there was a carnival atmosphere: Vendors hawked corn, candied apples, watches, and balloons in the shapes of cartoon characters.
Scout troops played bagpipes, horns, and drums, and bands from around the world performed on a stage, singing Christmas carols and original Christmas rock ballads, mostly in English. A recording of "Feliz Navidad" blasted through the speakers, too.
A Palestinian host welcomed members of Gaza's tiny Christian community, who were permitted to cross through Israel to the West Bank, eliciting whistles and applause.
"My son and I and my husband came for Christmas to see, you know, be right here where it all took place," said Irene Adkins, 63, from Lorain, Ohio, as she sat in a Bethlehem visitor's center. "It feels wonderful."
The celebrations brought a boost of holiday cheer to the area after a difficult year. Israeli-Palestinian peace talks collapsed last spring, and Israel battled Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip during a 50-day war over the summer. Elsewhere in the region, the Mideast's dwindling Christian community has suffered persecution at the hands of Islamic State extremists.
For residents of the Palestinian town of Bethlehem, an independent state is as elusive as ever. The Church of the Nativity, built over the grotto that Christians believe is the site of Jesus' birth, was flanked by the towering Christmas tree and a large poster in Arabic and English that read: "All I want for Christmas is justice."
Police and local officials said that just 4,500 international tourists visited Bethlehem this year, less than half of last year's number. By nightfall, perhaps 2,000 people remained in the square, most of them local Palestinians.