Pilgrims celebrated Christmas Day on Wednesday in the ancient Bethlehem church where tradition holds Jesus was born, as candles illuminated the sacred site and the sound of prayer filled its overflowing halls.

This year’s turnout has been the largest in years in Bethlehem and the celebrations have been marked by careful optimism amid ongoing Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Leaders expressed hope that the coming year would finally bring the Palestinians an independent state of their own.

The top Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land, Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal, led a prayer for some 1,000 worshippers as bells rang and tourists from around the world flocked to the fourth-century The Church of the Nativity complex to see the grotto that is Jesus’ traditional birthplace.

“The whole world now is looking at Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus,” Mr. Twal said in his annual address. “The Holy Land is where Jesus was born in the grotto and we have to reflect this bright picture of Jesus by representing the morals of Jesus, the message of Jesus the message of love and reconciliation.”

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