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Abbas joins Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem

Dec. 24, 2012 7:33 A.M. (Updated: Dec. 26, 2012 9:12 A.M.)
BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) -- President Mahmoud Abbas arrived in Bethlehem on Monday to celebrate Christmas and join the traditional Midnight Mass service in the Church of the Nativity.

He was welcomed by the governor and other senior Palestinian figures in Bethlehem.

Jordan's Foreign Minister Nasser Judah will also attend the mass on behalf of King Abdullah II.

Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad Twal arrived earlier and was greeted by thousands of pilgrims awaiting the traditional procession to Bethlehem.

Twal arrived through a gate cut through Israel's separation wall on the main Hebron-Jerusalem road. Bethlehem has been cut off from Jerusalem since Israel built the cement structure.

Twal toured the church grounds, where he was welcomed by mayor Vera Baboun, presidential adviser for Christian affairs Ziyad Bandal and the governor of Bethlehem, Abdul Fattah Hamayel.

The tourism minister and national and religious figures were also present.

As the patriarch passed Azza refugee camp, members of the UN refugee agency UNRWA gathered to protest layoffs and draw attention to their conditions and reorganization within the agency.

Thousands of scouts, tourists and locals celebrated Christmas Eve in the historic city, gathering outside the Nativity Church.

The city has been decorated and a huge tree is standing in Manger Square, with thousands of colorful lights and a 150 centimeter star on top. The tree was lit on Dec. 15 by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

"This year we are celebrating for the first time in the State of Palestine," government spokeswoman Nour Odeh said. Palestine was admitted to the United Nations as a non-member state in late November.

Minister of Tourism Rula Maayah told Ma’an that 15,000 tourists were expected to join Christmas celebrations this year. Bethlehem hotels are fully booked, she added.

Terrasanta scout group leader George Zughbi said around 3,500 scouts representing 27 groups from across the West Bank would take part in the celebrations.

A group from Jaffa, a Palestinian city in Israel, also will join the festival, he added.

Scout groups from the Gaza Strip hoped to attend but Israeli authorities refused them permission to enter the West Bank, Zughbi added.

Israel granted 557 Christians in Gaza permission to spend Christmas in Bethlehem, the Palestinian liaison department said. Palestinian officials at Erez crossing said 200 Christians left Gaza on Monday morning.

For the first time, Israel granted Christians multiple-entry permits allowing them to travel back and forth between Gaza and the West Bank from Dec. 24 to Jan. 8, crossing officials told Ma'an.

In Bethlehem, police director Alaa Shalabi said officers were on hand to maintain order.

A team of 15 paramedics, seven ambulances and a mobile clinic with 100 volunteers will be on hand in Manger Square, Red Crescent director Abdul-Halim Jaafari told Ma'an.

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