An estimated 2 million Christian tourists are expected to visit Bethlehem by the end of 2013, a record number that is up significantly from the 1.18 million recorded in 2012, according to the Israeli Tourism Ministry.

During the Christmas period, 75,000 tourists are expected to arrive in Israel, including an estimated 25,000 Christian pilgrims. Israel has invested NIS 86 million ($24 million) over the last two years to develop and maintain Christians holy sites across the country. Representatives in the Tourism Ministry plan to continue collaborating with the Catholic Church for the expected visit of Pope Francis in May 2014.

“Since its establishment, the State of Israel has attached great importance to the values of freedom of religion and worship and works tirelessly to facilitate religious practice for people of all religions in freedom and mutual respect,” Israeli Tourism Minister Dr. Uzi Landau said in a statement.

This year’s Christmas celebrations in Israel will include a Christmas tree lighting and opening of the Christmas market on Dec. 11, hosting traditional receptions for Church leaders and Christian communities Dec. 22-23, and holding the traditional Nazareth parade on Dec. 24. Christmas mass will be celebrated in the Basilica of the Annunciation.

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