Preparations to mark Christmas celebrations are under way in the occupied West Bank city Bethlehem while tensions are still simmering in the area after Washington's recent move on Jerusalem.

A picture taken on December 23, 2017 shows Palestinians standing in the Manger Square in the West Bank town of Bethlehem ahead of Christmas eve.
A picture taken on December 23, 2017 shows Palestinians standing in the Manger Square in the West Bank town of Bethlehem ahead of Christmas eve. (AFP)

Preparations were under way in Bethlehem on Sunday for Christmas amidst simmering tensions in the region following Washington's decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

The controversial December 6 announcement by President Donald Trump unleashed demonstrations and clashes, including in the Israeli-occupied West Bank city Bethlehem, where Christians will mark the birth of Jesus in a midnight mass.

Bethlehem is normally flooded by tourists at this time of year, but has at times appeared almost empty as clashes between Palestinian protesters and the Israeli army keep people away.

Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, said "dozens" of groups had pulled out of planned visits after being scared off by the announcement and subsequent violence.

"Of course this created a tension around Jerusalem and this diverted attention from Christmas," the Catholic church's top official in Jerusalem said of Trump's announcement, but stressing that Christmas celebrations would go ahead as planned.

Perhaps as few as 50,000 Palestinian Christians make up just around two percent of the predominantly Muslim population of the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

Christmas preparations have not been affected and that it expects a 20 percent increase in the number of Christian pilgrims this year compared with 2016, said Israel's tourism ministry.

The ministry plans to operate a free shuttle service for the short distance between Jerusalem and Bethlehem for mass.

Meanwhile, Israeli forces fired on Palestinians protesters in Bethlehem on Saturday just two days before Christmas and killed two Palestinian protesters on Friday.

Despite calls from human rights groups for Israeli authorities to stop using "excessive force," violence continues.

Deployment of extra police

Extra units will be deployed in Jerusalem and at the crossings to Bethlehem to ease the travel and access for the "thousands of tourists and visitors", said an Israeli police spokesman.

The annual scouts parade in Bethlehem will march through Manger Square near the Church of the Nativity, built over the spot where tradition says Mary gave birth to Jesus and where celebrations will culminate with midnight mass.

Israel seized east Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war and later annexed it, in moves never recognised by the international community.

Palestinians view east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state, and interpreted Trump's statement as rejecting their right to a capital in east Jerusalem, although the Americans deny this.

'Inherent part of our societies'

In a statement ahead of Christmas, President of the Palestinian National Authority Mahmoud Abbas said Trump's announcement "encouraged the illegal disconnection between the holy cities of Bethlehem and Jerusalem, both separated for the first time in over 2,000 years of Christianity".

Abbas called on "world Christians to listen to the true voices of the indigenous Christians from the Holy Land... that strongly rejected the US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital".

"They are the descendants of the first followers of Jesus Christ and an integral part of the Palestinian people," Abbas said, calling the local Christian community "an inherent part of our societies".

Christmas celebrations in Egypt

In neighbouring Egypt, Coptic Christians who celebrate Christmas on January 6 saw a church in Giza attacked by a mob following Muslim prayers on Friday, the latest in some 20 such incidents in 2017.

Hundreds entered the church, chanting slogans calling for its demolition, destroying furniture and attacking worshippers before security forces restored order.

Celebrations in Mosul

But in Iraq, this year marks a positive turning point for the Christian community in the northern city of Mosul.

Christmas mass will be celebrated there for the first time in years following the city's recapture from the Daesh in July.

Daesh seized Iraq's second most populous city as part of a lightning offensive in 2014, driving out many Christians, and only small numbers have since returned.

Christian dignitaries as well as Iraqi political and military leaders are expected to attend the annual service at St Paul's Church in the eastern sector of Mosul.

Source: AFP