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.