Bethlehem, West Bank The mayor of Jesus' traditional birthplace on Wednesday asked pilgrims to visit in large numbers during Christmas and help pressure Israel to dismantle the barrier that separates the city from Jerusalem.
Victor Batarseh said twice as many visitors are expected this year compared to 2004. They will find the city "walled off," he said, by a 25-foot barrier cutting through the north edge of the town, part of the fence Israel says it needs to keep out Palestinian suicide bombers.
"The pilgrims who will travel to Bethlehem for Christmas this year will find that the city of Christ's birth is being walled off," Batarseh said.
Pilgrims should come to "morally bring down the wall," which cuts off Bethlehem from Jerusalem, just a mile away, Batarseh said.
Meanwhile, residents said a drop in violence, the election of a new Palestinian leadership and the reduction of roadblocks around the city have contributed to the return of pilgrims.
Batarseh said he is expecting 30,000 Christmas visitors this year, compared to 18,000 in 2004. Some 130,000 tourists have visited the holy site in the past five months. But the town still has not returned to its average of 90,000 visitors a month in the mid-1990s, after an interim peace deal with Israel brought calm.