Silent message of hope in Bethlehem at time of war in Palestine

Christmas celebrations muted due to Israel's military offensive in the Gaza Strip and soaring violence in the West Bank

A man sits and reflects in the deserted grotto, believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the occupied West Bank. AFP
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Christmas in Bethlehem has been muted this year due to Israel’s war in Gaza but residents of the occupied town believe the Christian festival's message of hope is more important than ever.

At least 20,000 people, including about 8,000 children and 6,200 women, have been killed in Gaza since the war began on October 7, Palestinian health authorities say.

The conflict has forced residents of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank to cancel their Christmas celebrations for the first time in decades.

The enormous plastic Christmas tree that usually dominates Manger Square is absent. Gone, too, are the sparkly lights above the plaza and the crowds of pilgrims who come to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

Tour guide Kamal Mukarker said his family needs the hopeful message of Christmas now more than ever, amid the pain of the war in Gaza and the resulting economic hardship for Palestinians in the West Bank.

“It’s our obligation. Jesus is the prince of peace and this is where his message started,” he told The National.

Christmas "brings joy to our hearts – it’s the only thing that gives us hope and life”, added Mr Mukarker.

“I’m not going to go out and celebrate on the streets but it will be really sad if the Christians of Bethlehem do not celebrate Christmas with their children, at least in their homes.”

While Mr Mukarker emphasised his struggle pales compared to that of Gazans, he said the events of October 7 had dashed his hopes for the biggest recovery in tourism to the Holy Land since the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Most regular tourists that visit us come in October and November and then the week of Christmas – during the Jewish festivals of September they don’t come because the price of hotels is so high,” he said.

“Officially, these feasts ended this year on October 6, so that was the first real work day for us in four years. Now, after October 7, there’s nothing.

“If you could have seen my calendar, it was packed,” he added.

West Bank church cancels Christmas celebrations

West Bank church cancels Christmas celebrations

Economic activity in the West Bank has ground to a halt since the war broke out. Israeli forces have launched repeated raids into the territory, most notably in Jenin, in which more than 490 Palestinians have been killed.

Against this backdrop, churches have decided to cut back on celebrations this Christmas.

In previous years, Reverend Munther Isaac has put up a small, colourfully decorated Christmas tree in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bethlehem. The tree, along with a tableau depicting the infant Jesus in a manger, has long been an integral part of Christmas celebrations for Christians worldwide.

They take on added significance in Bethlehem, the biblical birthplace of Jesus, as a sign that Christians remain a vibrant community in the Holy Land, despite high rates of emigration and increasing persecution.

This year, Rev Isaac and his congregation decided to forgo the Christmas tree in view of the thousands killed in the continuing Israel military offensive in Gaza.

“No one feels like celebrating,” he said.

“We celebrate a baby every Christmas but children are being literally massacred in Gaza right now.”

Israel launched its war on October 7 after the Hamas militant group that rules Gaza launched surprise attacks in the south of the country, killing about 1,200 people.

Gaza's population includes a small Christian community of about 1,000, according to Christian leaders, who have not been spared the devastation of the war.

On October 19, Israel struck the historic St Porphyrius Greek Orthodox Church in Gaza city, where Christians and Muslims were taking shelter, killing 18.

Meanwhile, Pope Francis makes almost daily calls to a small Catholic community in a church in northern Gaza that is offering refuge to about 700 Palestinians who have lost their homes in the Israel-Gaza war.

He speaks daily to a priest and nuns at the Church of the Holy Family, who said he asks how they are coping, blesses them and prays for peace.

Rev Isaac said the Israeli bombardment has destroyed or damaged every single Christian home in Gaza.

“So, if they survive this war, they're homeless,” he added.

“And most of them have relatives here [in the West Bank], so this is very close – it's hitting home.”

Updated: December 21, 2023, 6:48 PM