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A Lutheran church in Bethlehem is displaying a sombre Christmas message, with a nativity scene that depicts an infant Jesus surrounded by rubble to reflect the devastation in Gaza.
Inside the West Bank church, a model of baby Jesus lies swaddled in a kaffiyeh, the distinctive patterned Palestinian scarf, as a light glows from amid the stones.
Rev Munther Isaac, pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem, said that the image was intended to portray the suffering of families in Gaza.
“We came with the idea of a manger in the rubble and it’s inspired from the difficult images we see on a daily basis on our television screens of children being pulled from under the rubble in Gaza,” he told The National.
“These images break us and are devastating.
“We are tired of the world rationalising and justifying the killing of our children in Gaza.”
Message from 'homeland of Christmas'
He said that the church – which was built in the 19th century and is one of the oldest Lutheran churches in Palestine – wanted to remind people of the ongoing tragedy in Gaza.
“While the world celebrates Christmas with big festivities, in the homeland of Christmas, children are being killed, homes are being destroyed and families displaced,” Rev Isaac said.
“We want to remind the world of the suffering of Palestinians, the injustice we go through so it can hopefully challenge the world to work for peace.
“Our only wish and prayer this Christmas is that this genocide will be over.”
Like a traditional nativity scene, the tableau has shepherds and wise men bringing gifts for Jesus, but while the baby lies in the rubble, the wooden carvings have been placed outside.
“We brought stones and put Jesus on it and the magi and shepherds are watching from the outside,” the pastor said.
“They are searching for Jesus just like we see on TV every day.
“People daily are trying to find any sign of life under the rubble in Gaza.
“It’s a difficult image but as it’s Christmas, we also have kept a burning light inside to show hope.”
No celebrations in Bethlehem
Bethlehem, believe to be the birthplace of Jesus, was more than 86 per cent Christian more than 70 years ago. These numbers drastically fell after the 1948 war, known as the Nakba by Palestinians, when many Palestinians were forced out of their homes.
There are about 47,000 Christians living in Palestine across the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, according to Palestinian Authority statistics from 2017. The majority, more than 98 per cent, reside in the West Bank, with a tiny community of a little more than 1,000 living in Gaza.
Churches in the West Bank have held daily prayers to show solidarity with the residents of Gaza since the recent war began.
Rev Isaac said there could be no Christmas celebrations in Palestine this year.
“People are broken, sad and we are afraid,” he said.
“It’s impossible to celebrate with what is happening in Gaza.
“There will be no street parades, no Christmas lights, nothing this year.
“Everything will be confined to prayers in churches only.”
More than 17,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza, most of them women and children, since the outbreak of the Israel-Gaza war on October 7.
Israeli air strikes have damaged or destroyed whole areas of the enclave, and many more people are suspected to be trapped under rubble.
Israel vowed to wipe out Hamas following the October 7 attack by the group that killed about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and took 240 hostage.
Since a seven-day truce between Hamas and Israel expired last week, Israel has intensified its ground operations and shelling in areas across Gaza.