Thousands enjoy merry Christmas in Bethlehem

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BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) - Thousands of Christians from the world over have packed Manger Square in Bethlehem to celebrate the birth of Jesus in the town where he was born.

For their Palestinian hosts, this holiday season was an especially joyous one, with the hardships of the Israeli occupation that clouded previous Christmas Eve celebrations eased by the United Nations' recent recognition of an independent state of Palestine.

Festivities led up to the Midnight Mass at St. Catherine's Church, next to the fourth-century Church of the Nativity, built over the grotto where tradition says Jesus was born.

A packed Manger Square, resplendent with strings of lights, decorations and a 55-foot Christmas tree, took on a festive atmosphere as pilgrims mixed with locals and a choral group from the Baptist Church in Jerusalem performed carols.

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