Christians in Bethlehem mark start of Christmas season
Hundreds of Christian worshippers gathered in Bethlehem Sunday for the first mass of Advent - the period when Christians prepare for the birth of baby Jesus.
Nov 30 (Reuters) - "Jingle Bells" rang out over Manger Square on Sunday as Bethlehem opened a Christmas market that the Palestinian city hopes will help cap a boom year for tourism with a profitable festive season.
"It has been an excellent year," Bethlehem's mayor Victor Batarseh said, forecasting 1.25 million visitors by the end of 2008 and noting a halving in local unemployment.
"We don't have any empty beds. Two years ago, all the hotels were empty."
Trade in the bibical birthplace of Jesus was devastated when a Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation began in 2000 -- months after a papal visit and millennium celebrations had seemed to lock in a rosy future for Bethlehem as a magnet for tourists and pilgrims in a region aglow with hopes for peace.
Eight years on, hopes for a final settlement with Israel have faded, like the patched up bullet holes in the Nativity Church which bear witness to a five-week siege in 2002. But a decline in violence has tempted back tourists who no longer fear suicide bombers and gunbattles erupting in the streets.