By Hua Chunyu, Qi Xianghui
Christmas bells resounded over the West Bank city of Bethlehem, the birth place of Jesus Christ, as Christians from all over the world gathered Wednesday night in the holy city to pray for peace on the occasion of the Savior's birthday.
With the security situation in the West Bank became better in 2008, Bethlehem is expecting the biggest number of tourists who spend Christmas in the city.
"The number of tourists and pilgrims is expected to be 30,000 in these two days, comparing to last year's 10,000." Victor Batarseh, mayor of Bethlehem, told Xinhua.
"We decorated the city in a better style, which we hope our citizens could feel more at ease," he added.
More than one year ago, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian National Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas announced in the United States that the two sides will revive the long-stalled peace negotiation.
Although the yearlong peace talks produces little solid progress, the Palestinians in the West Bank have been enjoying a comparatively quiet life.
Batarseh said the quietness provided more opportunity for Bethlehem, whose economy mainly depends on tourism.
"In the past, foreign tourists seldom stay in Bethlehem overnight, but for this Christmas, it would be hard for people to find a hotel room near the Nativity Church without early booking," the mayor elaborated.
According to Batarseh, the number of tourists visiting Bethlehem in the first nine months of this year has reached 1.12 million, almost doubled the number of the same period in 2007.
With night falling, neon lights turned the Manger Square into a colorful world, which was filled with voices from around the world as choirs from Russia, Italy, Spain and Palestinian territories performed for pilgrims.
But some 70 km away, Palestinians in Gaza Strip witnessed another day of bloodshed caused by daily conflict with Israel.
On Wednesday evening, Israeli airstrike killed at least one Palestinian militant, after more than 60 mortar shells and Katyusha and Kassam rockets pounded southern Israel throughout the day.
Earlier in the day, Gaza Latin Church pastor Manuel Musalam announced that the 4,000 Palestinian Christians living in Gaza won't celebrate Christmas this year and won't do the midnight Christmas mass, in a protest against the Israeli blockade imposed on Gaza and the Israeli threats of invasion.
Even in Bethlehem, under the festive atmosphere, the Israeli- built security fence surrounding the city also reminds people that peace has not prevailed.
In his speech delivered at the midnight mass at the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve, Latin Patriarch of the Holy Land Fuad Twal, head of the Roman Catholic Church in the Palestinian territories prayed for peace in Israel and the Palestinian territories.
"We are seeking the peace that we missed, the peace that brings humanity its dignity back, which has been absent over the past years and was mixed with the blood," Twal said.
"Peace is a gift from God and it is the best solution for conflicts and differences. Wars can bring neither peace nor security, while walls, however tall they become, would never bring safety," he added.
(Xinhua News Agency December 25, 2008)