The tragedy of Gaza casts a long shadow over Christmas

For a religious festival with its roots in the Middle East, war in the Holy Land is a profound moment of sorrow

This year's nativity scene in the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in the West Bank city of Bethlehem depicts an infant Jesus wrapped in a keffiyeh and placed on a pile of rubble. Getty
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A picture is worth a thousand words, it is said. If so, then the image of a melancholy nativity scene taken this month in Bethlehem – the birthplace of Jesus – describes the bleak character of this year’s Christmas celebrations with an unsettling immediacy.

The Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in the West Bank city set up a nativity display of the infant Jesus, a traditional practice for many Christians at this time of year. However, in a sad twist, instead of the new-born child lying in a manger surrounded by family and visitors, the Jesus of December 2023 reclines amid lumps of broken masonry and is wrapped in a keffiyeh, the traditional Palestinian scarf.

It is a message that reminds the world that although for millions of Christians the festival is meant to be a time for peace, prayer and family, for Palestinians in the Holy Land it is taking place in the shadow of war and death. The continuing destruction being wrought on Gaza’s citizens after the Hamas attacks of October 7 has led to the cancellation of Christmas events elsewhere in Palestine and have muted many more celebrations worldwide. For a religious festival with its roots in the Middle East, this is a profound moment of sorrow.

West Bank church cancels Christmas celebrations

West Bank church cancels Christmas celebrations

In Gaza, Palestinian Christians have been suffering alongside their Muslim neighbours during an increasingly unrecoverable war. Israeli forces shot at Gaza’s Holy Family church on December 16, claiming the life of a mother and daughter who had sought refuge there, drawing strong condemnation not only from local bishops, but from Pope Francis who stated: “Some are saying, ‘This is terrorism and war.’ Yes, it is war, it is terrorism.”

But Palestinian Christians have also faced terrible suffering in the West Bank, where Israeli forces have effectively locked down cities and towns, making it extremely difficult for people to enter Bethlehem and other parts of the Palestinian territories. Christmas celebrations there have been cancelled for the first time in decades in a show of solidarity with the people of Gaza. The last time Christmas was cancelled there was in 1987 during the First Intifada, Fr Peter DuBrul, a veteran priest who has worked in Bethlehem for nearly 50 years, told The National.

In Jerusalem too, Christian communities have faced increasing threats and intimidation, with numerous incidents of vandalism as well as verbal and physical abuse being carried out by hardline Jewish activists. Even before the Gaza war, church leaders were worried. In September, a statement was signed by 13 senior members of different denominations, including Theophilos III, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate and Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Latin Apostolic Administrator in the city. In it, they echoed a call by Jordan's King Abdullah II to stop Israeli encroachment and warned of "clear and present dangers" to the Christian presence in Jerusalem.

For Christians, the story of the birth of Jesus is one of hope against the odds and of triumph against diversity. It is important to remember that no conflict, no matter how difficult, is insoluble when the right will and good faith are present. A faint glimmer of such hope was seen this week as diplomacy at the UN moved forward incrementally with the Security Council’s adoption of a resolution to increase aid and set conditions for a reduction in violence. But a true miracle in line with the core values of Christmas would be an immediate and lasting halt to the violence.

Published: December 24, 2023, 2:00 PM