Live rock music mingled with traditional carols in Manger Square on Christmas Eve Thursday, bringing some rare festive spirit to Bethlehem, Jesus traditional birthplace.
The celebrations, together with resurgence in tourism, have provided some respite from the pall cast by the wall lurking over the entrance to the town – part of Israel s controversial West Bank separation barrier – and continued concern for the plight of Bethlehem s dwindling Christian population.
As darkness fell, several thousand pilgrims and Palestinians gathered outside the Church of the Nativity, watching as Austrian rock group Cardiac Move belted out a selection of Christmas-themed rock songs from a large stage.
These are the local people, said shopkeeper Adnan Subeh, 40, looking on approvingly as about 200 Palestinian teenagers jumped up and down in front of the stage, waving their arms enthusiastically to a rendition of the 1980s Band Aid anthem Do They Know It s Christmas?
They are here because we are living in a big jail, they want to come here on this night to get away from it all, to enjoy (life) for once, he said.
The concert was a part of Rock to Bethlehem, a plan to bring about a dozen international music acts to show solidarity with the youth of Bethlehem.
But mindful the rest of Christendom may not be as appreciative of a full blown rock concert in Manger Square on Christmas Eve, the Bethlehem municipality selected just two groups to perform.
It was great for us to send a sign to the people of the Holy Land that they are not forgotten, Johnny Krysl, lead singer of Cardiac Move, told AFP after the show, while signing autographs for a handful of young fans.
Bethlehem brought us Christmas and we wanted to bring Christmas back to Bethlehem, he said.
Earlier, a carnival-like atmosphere prevailed in the town as merchants hawked balloon animals, cotton candy, steamed corn and strong, black coffee poured from traditional copper urns.
Inside the Church of the Nativity, black-clad monks chanted as hundreds of pilgrims quietly waited in line to pray in the grotto many Christians believe is the spot where Mary gave birth after she and Joseph found no rooms at the inn.
This is the place where God gave us his son, so it is very special for me to be here, for me and my whole community, said Juan Cruz, 27, from Mexico.
The festivities culminated with midnight mass in the adjoining St Catherine s Church, where the Latin patriarch delivered a Christmas sermon.
The celebrations cap a year when tourists returned to the town in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where the Bible says the Prince of Peace was born, in numbers unseen since the outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian violence at the turn of the millennium.
Buoyed by the West Bank s relative calm, more than 1.6 million people have visited Bethlehem so far this year, Palestinian Tourism Minister Khulud Duaibess said. Some 15,000 pilgrims were expected for Christmas.
In 2008, one million tourists visited the town.
However, the tourism boom has not brought prosperity to Bethlehem, with most tourists whisked in for the day and from hotels in Israel, Duaibess said.
Only five percent of the money stays on the Palestinian side, she said.
The financial woes have been exacerbated by the eight-meter high concrete barrier that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem. It forms part of the projected 700-kilometre West Bank separation barrier.
Israel says it is a security barrier needed to stop attacks inside the Jewish state. Palestinians call it an apartheid wall that cuts them off from much of their land and hampers tourism, trade and freedom of movement.
We are prepared to welcome Christmas with lights, decorations and joy, but this little town of love and peace, the capital of Christmas, lacks the desired peace it deserves, said Bethlehem Mayor Victor Batarseh.
Once a firm majority, Christians today make up only about 20 percent of the greater Bethlehem region s 180,000 residents and more than 280 families have left in the past three years alone, said Bataresh.
Our biggest challenge is that Christianity is dying out in the Holy Land, said Alex Awad, dean of the Bethlehem Bible College.