Thousands of Christians flock to Bethlehem for Christmas

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) — Thousands of Christian pilgrims gathered in the biblical town of Bethlehem for Christmas Eve celebrations.

The central Manger Square is decked out in white and yellow lights, and a towering Christmas tree.

And on a cool, clear night there's been a carnival atmosphere. Vendors hawked corn, candy apples, watches and balloons. Scout troops played bagpipes, horns and drums.

And bands from around the world performed on a stage, singing Christmas carols and original Christmas rock ballads, mostly in English.

One Ohio woman said she, her son and her husband are in Bethlehem for Christmas to "be right here where it all took place." Irene Adkins says, "It feels wonderful."

It's been a difficult year in the region. Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians collapsed last spring, and Israel battled Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip during a 50-day war over the summer.

Elsewhere in the region, a dwindling Christian community has suffered persecution at the hands of Islamic extremists.