Christmas celebrations cancelled for Gaza's Orthodox Christians living abroad

Deaths of loved ones and scale of the tragedy in Israel's war in Gaza have left relatives fearful and unable to rejoice

Rescue efforts in the historical Greek Orthodox Saint Porphyrius Church, where civilians took shelter, after Israeli airstrike in Gaza City, Gaza on October 20, 2023. Anadolu
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Palestinian Christians around the world are refusing to celebrate the Orthodox Christmas on Sunday as Israel's war continues to rage in Gaza.

Thousands of miles from Gaza in the Canadian city of Toronto, psychotherapist Hammam Farah says he is at a loss as he watches from afar the devastating war in his homeland.

Mr Farah said the celebration of Christmas in Gaza – with decorated streets, parades, carols and gift-giving – is now a distant memory, eclipsed by the conflict that has razed much of the Palestinian territory, left most of its population homeless and claimed more than 22,700 lives, according to the latest toll issued by Gaza health officials.

“It was a holy time to celebrate, but now, my family is running for their lives and on the brink of extinction,” he told The National.

Like thousands of Palestinians whose family members have been killed by Israeli bombs in the assault on Gaza following the October 7 Hamas attacks, Mr Farah lost his great-aunt, Ilham Farah, and his cousin, Suleiman Tarzy.

Women and children make up the vast majority of those killed in Gaza, its health ministry says.

More than 60 per cent of housing units in the enclave have been destroyed or damaged, according to UN estimates.

Against this catastrophic backdrop, around 30 leaders of Palestine's main churches agreed to cancel all Christmas celebrations to protest the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza.

“It's impossible to celebrate and light a Christmas tree and rejoice under these circumstances,” Reverend Munther Isaac, a pastor at the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem, told The National.

The Orthodox Christmas on January 7 is celebrated by 200-300 million people globally, including members of the Eastern Orthodox branch, which is followed by most Christians in the Middle East.

Christians killed in Gaza

Mr Farah says his family is one of hundreds of Christian Palestinian families who are living the “darkest Christmas in Palestine’s recent history”.

His aunt Nagham, 59, and her son Suleiman, 35, were among 400 Palestinians – the majority Christian – sheltering in a two-storey building within the Greek Orthodox Church of St Porphyrius complex in Gaza city.

The complex was hit by an Israeli air strike late on October 19. Eighteen people were killed, and at least 20 more were injured.

“Shell-shocked and injured, Nagham desperately called out for her son amid the chaos,” her sister, Hiba Farah, told The National from Canada.

She has been living with her son Hamman since she left Gaza in the wake of the 2000 Intifada, which led to a violent crackdown on Palestinians by Israeli forces.

“Her screams were drowned out by the collapse of parts of the 1,600-year-old building,” Hiba said, relaying what she was told by Nagham and others. “Suleiman, took his last breath under the rubble.”

The Israeli military said its fighter jets had hit a nearby militant command and control centre and that the church had not been the target of the strike.

Nagham is still in Gaza, said Hiba. She is now also mourning her aunt, Elham Farah, who was killed by an Israeli sniper on November 12.

For a month before she was targeted, 84-year-old Elham, a well-known music teacher in Gaza, was sheltering with around 500 others in the Holy Family Catholic Church. In broad daylight, as she walked to her nearby house to bring supplies, she was shot in the leg.

“She called our family who were also sheltering in the church. They tried to contact the Red Cross, but the IDF had completely sealed off the area,” Mr Farah said.

“Our neighbours later told us they saw her bleeding from a window, but each time they tried to help, they were met with sniper bullets,” he continued.

Elham was left lying on the street for hours, until she eventually bled to death.

“I found out only last week that a tank ran over her body. We don't know if she was alive when that happened,” Mr Farah told The National.

“Everyone knew her. She loved to travel, but she always went back home,” he said.

Another Palestinian Christian living abroad also lost a relative Holy Family Catholic Church.

Jeries Sayegh, father of Washington-based analyst and political analyst Khalil Sayegh, died due to a lack of medical care.

“Our house was bombed in the earlier days of the war,” Mr Sayegh told The National. “Like other Christians in our neighbourhood in north Gaza, my father sheltered at the nearby Holy Family Catholic Church.”

“My father’s health had deteriorated, and because of the destruction of almost all health facilities in the north, he couldn’t make it,” he said.

With communications regularly hampered by Israel, Mr Sayegh could not even speak to his father on the phone before he died on December 21.

Christians under threat

According to statistics published in a 2022 report by the US State Department, 50,000 Christian Palestinians live in the West Bank and Jerusalem and approximately 1,300 Christians live in Gaza. The numbers are based on media reports and religious community registries.

The emigration of Christian Palestinians has continued at rapid rates, the report says.

“Our livelihood here is extremely difficult,” Rev Isaac told The National. “We’re not thriving in Palestine as a community, and because of the rising emigration, our numbers are dwindling.”

Along with Muslims, Christian Palestinians experience “a shared oppression living under apartheid and Israeli occupation”, said Mr Sayegh.

“Even though the rise of political Islam in Gaza had unleashed radical forces when Hamas first took over Gaza in 2007, once the group consolidated power, they put a stop to the harassment of the Christian community,” Mr Sayegh said.

“Hamas even protected churches, ensuring that other extremist elements in Palestine’s society were kept at bay.”

Yet Mr Farah says Christians still feel excluded from “the struggle for our homeland’s freedom”.

“We feel left out. The Palestinian struggle has become a religious war of Muslims versus Jews. Christians feel excluded from the conversation,” he said.

“We too were expelled from our homes, our lands were confiscated, and our people, our community, is also subjected to the ethnic cleansing that Israel continues to perpetuate.”

Along with their personal loss, it is this feeling of belonging that has led Palestinian Christians like Mr Farah and Mr Sayegh to refuse to decorate a Christmas tree this year.

“We cannot celebrate while there is a potential genocide unfolding in Gaza,” Mr Sayegh said.

The story was published in collaboration with Egab.

Updated: January 07, 2024, 4:28 AM