By Mustafa Abu Ganeyeh
BETHLEHEM, West Bank (Reuters) - Thousands of foreign pilgrims and Palestinian Christians, some in Santa hats, gathered at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity Saturday to pray for peace at the place where Jesus was born.
Loudspeakers blared carols in Arabic and a Palestinian cleric in a festive purple robe pleaded for peace in the Holy Land and in the wider Middle East.
"We ask the baby of Bethlehem to give us the peace we really need, peace in all the countries of the Middle East. We demand peace in the Holy Land," said Latin Patriarch Fuad al-Tuwal.
The church leader, whose entourage included a man dressed as Santa Claus riding in a jeep, had arrived from Jerusalem earlier after crossing into Bethlehem, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, via an Israeli checkpoint through a towering concrete wall.
Israeli and Palestinian officials said at least 50,000 visitors had arrived in the steep hillside town, and many were expected to attend midnight mass at the church in Manger Square, the place where Christians believe Christ was born.
"It's really hectic, but everybody is happy so it's really nice to be here," said Emily, a tourist from Denmark. "And, well, it's just so nice to experience everything with people who believe in the same thing."
The number of foreign visitors to Bethlehem has risen steadily in the past few years, encouraged by a decline in the Israeli-Palestinian violence that often marred the occasion in the past.
Bethlehem, just a few minutes' drive from Jerusalem, is inside West Bank territory captured by Israel in a 1967 war, which Palestinians want for a future state.
Diplomacy toward reaching that goal stalled months ago in a dispute over Jewish settlement building.
"Obviously it's very special to be at this place where Jesus was born, as part of a tradition of the Christian church," said Ted Settle, an American pilgrim.
"It's very meaningful to be here with the people of Palestine who have endured so much hardship, to be here where Jesus was raised and taught about justice and peace."
Local Palestinian police with automatic weapons patrol the streets of Bethlehem, with Israeli troops controlling the nearby concrete wall and checkpoint on the road to Jerusalem.
In Manger Square, tourists mingled with locals, many of whom wore red and white Santa caps as an Arabic rendition of "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" played over a sound system.
(Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by Alistair Lyon)