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Bethlehem church shows off 1,600-year-old mosaics ahead of Christmas

By Nicholas Sakelaris
Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem
Palestinians walk past a Santa Claus displayed outside a store in Bethlehem, West Bank on Saturday. All the hotels in Bethlehem are fully booked for Christmas Eve. Photo by Debbie Hill /UPI | License Photo

Dec. 21 (UPI) -- Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, erected in the 4th century on the spot where some Christians believe Jesus Christ was born, showed off newly restored mosaics and frescoes ahead of Christmas.

The site is expected to draw 100,000 pilgrims during the week of Christmas alone.

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The 15-month restoration preserved 1,345 square feet of the once 21,528 square feet of glittering gold and glass. The mosaics were covered up by centuries of candle soot.

The highlight of the church is the Grotto of the Nativity, the spot where the manger is believed to have been where Mary gave birth to Jesus. There's a glittering star marking the spot that pilgrims can kiss.

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Now many of the frescoes are clear to see, including several angels located between windows and Christ's arrival into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.

Palestinian Authority engineer Ibrahim Abed Rabbo said the restoration, the first since 1479, is striking to see. While the fresco scenes on the wall are nearly 800 years old, the detailed flooring dates all the way back to the fourth century during the time of Emperor Constantine. The Byzantines rebuilt it in the 6th century and the Crusaders expanded it in the 12th century.

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"When you entered the church before, you could not even make out that there were mosaics, it was so black," Rabbo said.

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"It's meticulously detailed, it gives the impression of being brand new," French tourist and first-time visitor Patricia Lieby said. "I have never seen a mosaic like this outside Jerusalem, it's sublime."

Overall restoration is expected to be completed by the end of 2019.

The Church of the Nativity and its pilgrimage route are on the list of World Heritage Sites. Administration of the church is shared by the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Armenian Apostolic churches.

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The restoration was overseen by the Palestinian Authority, who contracted Italian company Piacenti to do the work.

The church has also been the scene of violence, including a 2002 firefight between Israel Defense Forces and Palestinians, who took shelter in the church. The Palestinians were wanted for terror attacks during the Second Intifada.

The church will have so many visitors that there were concerns about overcrowding and long lines. To keep that at bay, the church will have its own reservation system app.

"There are times when for us there are specific prayers, celebrations, or masses, or with all the sects praying," Orthodox priest Issa Thaljieh said. "So of course there is a huge squeeze. With the app, everyone will know what time to enter and which groups are there, so it will become more organized."

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Tourism is already up in the West Bank, including Jerusalem, where an estimated 2.8 million people have visited this year. The Palestinian Authority expects that number to continue to increase closer to Christmas.

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