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Christmas tree-lighting in Bethlehem a muted, virtual event

Only a few dozen people attended the lighting of the Christmas tree in the biblical city of Bethlehem on Saturday night, as coronavirus restrictions scaled back the annual event that is normally attended by thousands.

A small group of residents and religious leaders participated in the tree-lighting ceremony at Manger Square near the Church of the Nativity, where Christians believe Jesus was born. Others watched it virtually due to restrictions prompted by the virus pandemic.

Some officials, including Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, attended in person and addressed event participants watching online.

Crosses are lit on the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed by Christians to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, during the Christmas tree lightning ceremony in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020. (AP PhotoMajdi Mohammed)

Shtayyeh said the Palestinian leadership is receiving the new year with determination to “confronting the (Israeli) occupation more firmly” and ending the internal political division with the rival militant Hamas group. He said the Palestinians would “defeat the settlement”-building in the occupied West Bank despite the pandemic.

Bethlehem Mayor Anton Salman said Christmas is being observed this year in ways like no time before.

“We resorted to modern technology and to the virtual world to celebrate the lighting of the Christmas tree, wishing hope and optimism would flutter upon Palestine and the world,” Salman said.

Palestinian Christians attend the lighting of a Christmas tree outside the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed by Christians to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020. (AP PhotoMajdi Mohammed)

Thousands of pilgrims and tourists typically visit Bethlehem, fill hotels and dine at restaurants during the Christmas season, bringing the area a much-needed injection of cash.

Christians take photos inside the Grotto of the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Monday, Nov. 23, 2020. Normally packed with tourists from around the world at this time of year, Bethlehem resembles a ghost town – with hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops shuttered by the pandemic. (AP PhotoMajdi Mohammed)

Christian worshippers light candles in the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Monday, Nov. 23, 2020. Normally packed with tourists from around the world at this time of year, Bethlehem resembles a ghost town – with hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops shuttered by the pandemic. (AP PhotoMajdi Mohammed)

Christian worshipper prays in the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Monday, Nov. 23, 2020. Normally packed with tourists from around the world at this time of year, Bethlehem resembles a ghost town – with hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops shuttered by the pandemic. (AP PhotoMajdi Mohammed)