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Worshippers fill Bethlehem Church

Hundreds of Christians, defying lashing rain and wind, filled the ancient Bethlehem church that marks Jesus's traditional birthplace for Christmas Day Mass today.

Worshippers rushed into the Church of the Nativity under the cover of umbrellas, leaving Manger Square, with its 50ft Christmas tree, deserted.

The sanctuary was packed, and the overflow crowd waited eagerly in an arched corridor for a chance to enter.

Inside the church, supplicants raised their voices in prayer, kissed a plaster statue of baby Jesus and took communion.

Don Moore, 41, a psychology professor from Berkeley, California, who went to Bethlehem with his family said: "Lots of pilgrims from around the world are coming to be here on Christmas. We wanted to be part of the action.

"This is the place, this is where it all started. It doesn't get any more special than that."

Like the rest of the West Bank, Bethlehem fell on hard times after the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation broke out in late 2000.

Although civil affairs in the town are run by Palestinian authorities, security control remains in the hands of Israel, which built a barrier around three sides of it to keep Palestinian attackers out.

Palestinians say the barrier has badly hurt its economy, which depends heavily on tourism, by severely restricting movement in and out of the town.

But as the violence has subsided, tourists have returned in large numbers. Turnout for Christmas Eve festivities in Bethlehem was at its highest since the uprising began driving tourists away.

An estimated 100,000 visitors streamed into Manger Square yesterday, up from 70,000 the previous year.

With the barrier looming large over the celebrations in Bethlehem, Palestinians have tried to draw attention to their quest for an independent state with this year's Christmas slogan "Palestine celebrating hope."

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas told a meeting of Christian leaders that he is committed to reaching peace with Israel.

"I hope they will come back to their senses and understand that we are seekers of peace, not seekers of war or terrorism," said Mr Abbas. "The mosque, church and synagogue stand side by side in this Holy Land."

Israel allowed about 500 members of Gaza's Christian minority to travel through its territory to the West Bank to celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem. Most of Gaza's 3,000 Christians belong to the Greek Orthodox denomination, which celebrates Christmas next month.

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