Jerusalem/Bethlehem: Hundreds of Christian pilgrims from India took out a procession in Jesus Christ's birthplace of Bethlehem praying for world peace on the eve of Christmas. The Israeli Army, which controls movement in and out of Bethlehem, said some 100,000 visitors, including foreigners and Arab Christians from Israel, had reached the town by 11pm (local time), up from 70,000 the previous year.
Around 500 Indians who took part in the procession were Christian tourists from various parts of the country.
"The scenes from various parts of the Middle East during the last few months have been very worrisome, so we decided to gather in this Holy city to pray to God to bring peace in the region on Christmas," Father Sleeba Katpumangappu from Kerala said as he led the march on Saturday night.
"There was a very enthusiastic response to the idea of holding such a peace march among the Indian pilgrims and they responded to the call on a very short notice," Jose Liba of the Scopus World Travel, which helped bring the Indian pilgrims to Bethlehem said.
"It is my first visit to this blessed land. The fact that I have been able to participate in a worthy cause during pilgrimage is a very good feeling," said Abraham, an Indian tourist from Kerala.
Meanwhile, pilgrims from Tamil Nadu and Kerala held a prayer meeting in this holy city for an amicable settlement of the Mullaperiyar Dam row.
"The issue has divided the populations of the two states causing a major concern. More importantly the rumours flying all around have led to a lot of ill feeling between us which ultimately affects the unity of India," Shaheen Kuruvilla from Kottayam said.
The tourist said the Mullaperiyar dam row has the potential of turning into a major crisis leading to a volatile situation which can threaten peace in south India.
"I hope that good sense prevails on the leadership of both the states and they are not driven by narrow personal interests, but the interest of humanity and India," said Muthuswamy from Chennai.
Most of the participants expressed hope that the festive season marking the birth of Jesus would bring in divine intervention leading to peaceful settlement of the dispute before the beginning of the new year.
Undeterred by political chaos surrounding the region, the economic downslide and an inclement weather, record number of tourists have thronged the West Bank city of Bethlehem this year.
Palestinian officials said the overall turnout for the celebrations in Bethlehem this year is around 120,000, about 30 percent higher than last year.
Israel eased movement of pilgrims to enable them to participate in the celebrations and even allowed a few dozen Christians from Gaza to crossover to join the festivities.
Israel's Tourism Ministry spokesperson, Lydia Weitzman, described the inflow of tourists as "very impressive" given the turmoil in the Arab world and economic recession.
Fireworks ignited the sky as tourists and locals jostled for space at the Manger square, the centre of activities. Hotels in Bethlehem were full to their capacity this year as many tourists chose to stay in the town instead of shuttling from Jerusalem.
After nightfall, a packed Manger Square, along with a 50-ft-tall Christmas tree, was awash in Christmas lights.
Political calls also reverberated in the area alongwith celebrations as Bethlehem Mayor Victor Batarseh expressed hopes that this year's Christmas will hopefully bring Palestinians closer to their dream of statehood.
"We are celebrating this Christmas hoping that in the near future we'll get our right to self-determination our right to establish our own democratic, secular Palestinian state on the Palestinian land. That is why this Christmas is unique," Batarseh said.
Many Palestinian residents of the city complained of the Israeli Wall surrounding it from three sides, crippling the economy and reducing Bethlehem into a ghost town with tourists normally choosing to stay away from it due to security procedures.
Israel said the wall is meant to prevent suicide attacks in its territory which had become a recurring feature during the peak of a Palestinian intifada that started in Oct 2000.
Jerusalem/Bethlehem: Hundreds of Christian pilgrims from India took out a procession in Jesus Christ's birthplace of Bethlehem praying for world peace on the eve of Christmas.
The Israeli Army, which controls movement in and out of Bethlehem, said some 100,000 visitors, including foreigners and Arab Christians from Israel, had reached the town by 11pm (local time), up from 70,000 the previous year.