Pictures: Merry Christmas in Bethlehem

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) — Tens of thousands of tourists and Christian pilgrims packed the West Bank town of Bethlehem for Christmas Eve celebrations Saturday, bringing warm holiday cheer to the traditional birthplace of Jesus on a raw, breezy and rainy night.

Palestinian Scouts play the bagpipes outside the Church of the Nativity while Christians gather for Christmas celebrations in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on December 24, 2011, as thousands of Christian pilgrims descended on Bethlehem to celebrate in Jesus' traditional birthplace.

A worshipper prays in the Church of Nativity, the site widely believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem

Clergy gather in Manger Square outside the Church of the Nativity while Christians gather for Christmas celebrations in the West Bank city of Bethlehem

With turnout at its highest in more than a decade, proud Palestinian officials said they were praying the celebrations would bring them closer to their dream of independence.

Bethlehem, like the rest of the West Bank, fell onto hard times after the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation broke out in late 2000. As the fighting has subsided in recent years, the tourists have returned in large numbers and all of the city’s hotels were fully booked.

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