Thousands of pilgrims from around the world have packed the West Bank town of Bethlehem for Christmas Eve celebrations.
Palestinian schoolchildren in music bands marched through Manger Square to the Church of Nativity, revered by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus. Bagpipe players and boy and girl scouts also paraded through town. Many pilgrims are to attend midnight Mass tonight. Fewer pilgrims have been visiting Bethlehem since a bloody Palestinian uprising began five years ago, and some three thousand Christian residents have since moved out -- but there is expected to be a sharp increase in tourism this year. Visitors to Bethlehem must pass through a military checkpoint, and a massive security barrier erected by Israel divides the town. Residents say they are isolated and the barrier has severely hurt business. Israel says the barrier is to keep suicide attackers out of Israel.