Thousands of Palestinians and tourists gathered on Tuesday, at Manger Square, in Bethlehem, marking the start of Christmas eve.

Local faithful and pilgrims gathered at the square, outside the Church of the Nativity, where a 15-meter Christmas tree had been erected, and along the narrow cobble-stoned route, known as Star Street.

The crowd, which included children dressed as Santa Claus, were entertained as bagpipe-playing Palestinian scout groups paraded past the giant Christmas tree and Christmas carols in Arabic were played through loudspeakers.

Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, headed the annual procession from Jerusalem and to Manger Square, passing through a massive metal gate in the towering apartheid wall which separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem.

Pizzaballa was welcomed at Manger Square by clergy, dignitaries and a host of Palestinian officials, ahead of the midnight mass at the Church of the Nativity, built over the grotto where Christian tradition says Jesus Christ was born.

Among the host of officials who greeted Pizzaballa were Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Roula Maayah, Head of the Presidential Committee for Church Affairs Ramzi Khoury, Bethlehem Governor Kamel Hmeid and Bethlehem Mayor Anton Salman.

The most senior Roman Catholic cleric will lead the mid mass in the Church of the Nativity, with President Mahmoud Abbas and a representative of Jordan’s King Abdullah II are expected to attend.

Fewer Christians from the besieged Gaza Strip will attend the Christmas celebrations than in previous years, as Israel has granted permits to around 300 out of 950 who applied, according to Wadi Abu Nassar, an advisor to the church hierarchy in the Holy Land.

Hotels dotting the biblical hometown of Jesus are almost fully-booked as Bethlehem enjoys its busiest Christmas season in years. Recent statistics published by the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities indicate that the number of tourists to the occupied territories increased by 15 percent in 2019, WAFA further reports.

“The number of tourists who have visited Palestine since the beginning of this year has exceeded 3,520,000, with an increase of 15.4 percent compared with 2018,” said Minister of Antiquities Rula Maayah.

This year, less numbers of Palestinian Christians, whose numbers have dwindled in recent years, flocked to the biblical city. Many are choosing to leave their homeland to escape decades of Israeli occupation.

Living under military occupation, Palestinian Christians have been suffering as a result of Israel’s policies of land seizures (land grab), settlement construction, movement restrictions and, for those living in Jerusalem, the revocation of residency identity cards.

The Church of the Nativity is administered by three churches, the Roman Catholic Church, the Greek Orthodox Church and the Armenian Church. The Orthodox and Oriental churches will celebrate the feast on December 25, according to the Julian Calendar, equivalent to January 7.

Human Interest 12/23/19 VIDEO: Christmas Parade Tours Streets of Bethlehem