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Christians ready to celebrate in Bethlehem

The Holy Land prepared to mark Christmas today in the heart of a region overshadowed by the massacre and exodus of Christians from Iraq and a troubled peace process.

Christians from around the world, including for the first time from Arab countries with have no diplomatic ties with Israel, flocked to Bethlehem to celebrate the holiday in the West Bank city where Christ was born.

Tourists from the United States, Europe, Asia, Latin America and Africa packed hotels, towards the end of a bumper year for foreign visitors to Bethlehem.

The day's events, which include a traditional procession and a concert in Manger Square, were to be capped by a midnight mass delivered by Latin Patriarch Fuad Twal, the most senior Catholic bishop in the Middle East.

He is expected to deliver a message of hope for peace in the Middle East and around the world, but also sound a sombre tone after the October 31 massacre of worshippers in a Baghdad church.

In a pre-Christmas message, Twal offered solidarity to Iraqi Christians, who have been the target of repeated bloody attacks, including the church attack that killed 44 worshippers and two priests.

"We were shocked and troubled by the massacre of Christians in Baghdad in the church," Bishop Twal said.

"For the Iraqi Christians, we are with them in this bad situation," he added, noting the sharp drop in the number of Christians in Iraq from about 800,000 at the time of the US-led invasion of 2003 to about 500,000 now.

He also lamented the failure of renewed direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, but urged the faithful not to give up hope.

"We continue to believe that on both sides, and in the international community, there are men of goodwill who will work and put their energies together in their commitment for peace," he said in his address on Tuesday.

"We believe that nothing is impossible with God."

Twal was to arrive in Bethlehem at around 1100 GMT in a procession that travels along Star Street and into Manger Square, where the Church of the Nativity is located.

At least 90,000 people are expected to flood the city for the Christmas celebrations, according to Palestinian Authority figures.

And unlike in years past, when the spectre of unrest and violence kept visitors away from the city's 24 hotels, instead spending inside Israel inside, Bethlehem hoteliers were expecting many tourists to stay over on Friday night.

The Christmas season will cap a year of unprecedented tourism for Bethlehem and the Palestinian territories, where visitor revenues are sorely needed.

Bethlehem will also host tens of thousands of Palestinians from the West Bank and Arab Israelis, and several hundred from the tiny Christian community in Gaza who were able to secure rare Israeli entry permits for the holiday.



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