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Christmas celebrated at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity despite COVID travel ban

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By Daniel Bellamy  with AP
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Christmas celebrated at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity despite COVID travel ban
Copyright  Mussa Issa Qawasma/AP

Hundreds of churchgoers attended the Christmas morning service, held at Bethlehem's Church of Nativity on Saturday, following a day of celebrations in the city's Manger Square.

The mass, mostly attended by locals, was led by Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the top Catholic clergyman in the Holy Land.

On Friday, hundreds of people gathered in Bethlehem's Manger Square for Christmas Eve celebrations.

The day began with scouts marching through the square followed by the arrival of the Patriarch.

Nearly all those celebrating Christmas in Bethlehem this year were either residents or Palestinians visiting from other parts of Israel or the West Bank.

Among them were a few foreign nationals either working or studying in Israel or the West Bank.

Israel, which controls movement in and out of the West Bank, has effectively suspended foreign tourism for almost two years following the outbreak of COVID-19 in March 2020.

Israel briefly opened its borders to foreign nationals on 1 November but closed shortly after discovering cases of the highly transmissible Omicron variant.

In pre-pandemic times, thousands of pilgrims and tourists from around the world celebrated in the Church and the square.

Israel captured Old City of Jerusalem along with the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Six-Day War.