BETHLEHEM, WEST BANK (DECEMBER 24, 2012) (REUTERS) - The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal, arrived on Tuesday (December 24) to the West Bank town of Bethlehem, revered as the birthplace of Jesus, to lead Christmas mass at the Church of the Nativity.
"A new year, a year of peace and justice and unity among the Palestinian people," Twal said to well-wishers as he stopped along the way to Manger Square. "The people who come from Gazaand the other sacred lands come to pray not to go to the supermarket and we are happy to see them around us and we are praying for one another. Happy New Year."
Twal arrived in Manger square and was greeted by thousands of visitors and local residents, as marching bands played and crowds looked on from neighbouring buildings.
Inside the church, Twal was met by a choir singing church hymns and he bowed before ascending the altar where he performed the sign of the cross and blessed the crowd.
Outside the church, and with a marching band blaring beside her, Baboun said the festivities showed that the people in Bethlehem were happy. "The atmosphere just reflects what the people who lives in Bethlehem really carry the message of Bethlehem in their hearts despite the siege despite the wall, despite all the economic hardships, the joy is there," she said.
"Today we are celebrating Christmas, to see people coming here from all over the world is very nice," said one onlooker as she watched a band march by.
The tourist industry in Bethlehem has been consistently on the rise in recent years and 2013 is expected to bring even better results.
During the height of the intifada, or Palestinian uprising against Israel, many tourists avoided the town. Israel's 2002 siege of the Church of the Nativity, where militants took sanctuary during the uprising, deterred many from visiting.
But violence has fallen dramatically in recent years and more than two million people now visit Bethlehem every year.
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