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Bethlehem Residents Observe a Solemn Christmas Amidst War’s Shadow

In the historic city of Bethlehem, known for its vibrant Christmas celebrations, this year’s holiday season has taken on a notably somber tone. The bustling streets, typically teeming with tourists and pilgrims, now stand eerily empty. Hotels sit vacant, and restaurants that cater to visitors have closed their doors. Even the shops near the revered Church of the Nativity have mostly shut down.

Usualy Festivities Absent

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The usual festive adornments along the narrow, winding streets leading to the church, considered the traditional birthplace of Jesus Christ, are conspicuously absent.

The grand Christmas tree and lively holiday bazaars that typically welcome visitors in Manger Square have been forgone.

The reason for this subdued atmosphere lies in the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, not far away in the Gaza Strip.

Solidarity Amidst Suffering

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In a gesture of solidarity with the Palestinians of Gaza and the devastation they have endured, church leaders in Bethlehem and across the Holy Land have called on local Christians to abstain from public displays of celebration.

Instead, they encourage intensified prayers for the innocent victims of the war. Bethlehem’s municipal authorities have even removed previously installed Christmas decorations “in solidarity with our people in Gaza.”

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Statement By Churches in Jerusalem

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The Patriarchs and Heads of the Churches in Jerusalem, representing various Christian faith traditions, issued a statement in November, urging their congregations to “stand strong” with those affected by the conflict.

They requested that “unnecessarily festive activities” be foregone, emphasizing the spiritual significance of Christmas and the importance of holding those impacted by the war in their thoughts and prayers. The leaders implored the faithful to pray earnestly “for a just and lasting peace for our beloved Holy Land.”

A Symbol of Solidarity

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Rev. Rami Askarieh, the parish priest of Bethlehem’s Church of St. Catherine, reflects on these actions, stating, “This is our way of showing our solidarity with all who have died and who are suffering.”

After celebrating Sunday Mass in his Catholic church across from Manger Square, he emphasizes that despite the absence of typical holiday cheer, the local community will persist in their prayers, Masses, and the distribution of chocolates and gifts to schoolchildren.

Pray For Peace

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Their message to the children is clear: pray for peace.

Nearby, at the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church, a traditional decoration carries a poignant message. The baby Jesus, nestled among the rubble of a ruined nativity scene, is wrapped in a Palestinian keffiyeh, evoking images of children in Gaza.

“We’ve seen so many images of children being pulled out of the rubble,” says Munther Isaac, the church’s pastor. “And to us, this is a message that Jesus identifies with our suffering. He’s in solidarity with those who are oppressed, he’s in solidarity with those suffering. So it’s a message of comfort and hope to us.”

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Bethlehem’s Struggle

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Bethlehem, a Palestinian city in the Israel-occupied West Bank, is situated just 6 miles south of Jerusalem and has thus far avoided the direct ravages of the war that has engulfed Gaza and parts of Israel since Hamas’ October 7 attack. However, the conflict has deeply impacted the lives of Bethlehem’s residents in various ways.

Tourism Struck Due To War

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The majority of Bethlehem’s population relies on tourism for their livelihoods. Unfortunately, the war has struck at a particularly challenging time for the local tourism industry, which is still recovering from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year, approximately 120,000 tourists were expected to visit Bethlehem during the Christmas season, a slight dip from the 150,000 high in 2019.

Shops Closed

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However, this year, the usually bustling shops on Milk Grotto Street, near the Church of the Nativity, remain mostly closed. Virab Pezrosyan, the owner of a Christian souvenir shop on the street, notes that they have seen only a few groups of tourists entering via Jordan, with none arriving via Israel. His sole customer was a local woman purchasing rosaries.

“Souvenir shops, hotels, bus companies, olive-wood carvers – everyone is suffering,” laments Pezrosyan.

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Economic Impact

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Israel has partially reopened checkpoints into and out of Bethlehem but has not allowed Palestinians in the West Bank to renew canceled work permits that granted them access to sought-after jobs in Israel. Some have been permitted to work in Israeli settlements. Before the war, according to the International Monetary Fund, 13% of employed Palestinians worked in Israel or the settlements.

Dire Straits

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The financial situation in Bethlehem is dire. Joseph Hazboun, regional director of relief organization CNEWA (Catholic Near East Welfare Association), describes it as “disastrous.” With many families devoid of any income, parents struggle to pay their children’s tuition, and schools find it challenging to compensate teachers who have their own families to support.

Relatively Fortunate

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Despite these difficulties, Bethlehem residents consider themselves relatively fortunate, given the horrors unfolding in Gaza. CNEWA, based in Jerusalem, is currently focused on raising funds to support Gaza’s small Christian community, which numbered only around 1,000 before the war. Since the war began, at least a third of Gaza’s Christians have either left or applied for emigration visas.

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Losses in Gaza

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Eighteen Christians reportedly lost their lives following an Israeli airstrike on the grounds of the historic Greek Orthodox Church of St. Porphyrius, where many Palestinians had sought refuge. Additionally, two Christians at the Holy Family Parish in Gaza were killed by an Israel Defense Forces sniper, while seven others were wounded by gunfire. The IDF countered these claims, stating that they do not target civilians, regardless of their religion, and that they had received no such report from church representatives on that day.

A Message of Unity

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Amidst these challenges, Bethlehem’s residents unite in their support for the de facto ban on public Christmas celebrations. They view it as a reminder that war does not discriminate between Christians and Muslims, emphasizing their shared Palestinian identity.

Lara Isa, a local resident, expresses this sentiment, stating, “It reminds us that war doesn’t differentiate between Christians and Muslims, and that we are all Palestinians.”

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