Bethlehem sees record pilgrim crowd for Christmas

Israeli military officials, who coordinate movement in and out of the West Bank, said over 100,000 pilgrims have come to the town since Christmas Eve, compared to about 50,000 last year.

They said this is the merriest Christmas in Bethlehem in years and the highest number of visitors for the holiday in a decade. They officials were speaking on condition of anonymity because they are not authorised to talk to the media.

In contrast, Christians were marking a somber Christmas in Baghdad in the face of repeated violence by militants intent on driving their beleaguered community from Iraq.

Archbishop Matti Shaba Matouka said he hoped Iraqi Christians would not flee the country.

Hundreds gathered at a Baghdad church where Muslim extremists in October took more than 120 people hostage in a standoff that ended with 68 dead.

Church walls were pockmarked with bullet holes, plastic sheeting covered gaps where glass windows used to be and small pieces of dried flesh and blood remain stuck to the ceiling.

After the siege, about 1,000 Christian families fled to the relative safety of northern Iraq, according to UN estimates.

Christmas was marred by violence in the Philippines. A bomb exploded during Christmas Day Mass at a police chapel in the volatile southern Philippines, wounding a priest and five churchgoers.

The improvised explosive was hidden in the ceiling of the chapel, which is located inside a police camp in Jolo town on Jolo Island, a stronghold of al-Qaida-linked militants.

In Bethlehem, pilgrims and tourists posed for pictures and enjoyed the morning sunshine, while others thronged the Church of the Nativity for mass. Worshippers also packed the Roman Catholic church built next to the grotto where the traditional site of Jesus' birth is enshrined.

Pilgrims have slowly been returning to Bethlehem since violence between Palestinians and Israelis slowed down over the past five years. The town's 2,750 hotel rooms were booked solid for Christmas week, and town officials say more hotels are under construction.

The warm weather, a sharp decline in Israeli-Palestinian violence and an economic revival in the West Bank all added to the holiday cheer this year. Only one-third of Bethlehem's 50,000 residents are Christian today, down from about 75 percent in the 1950s. The rest are Muslims.

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