22 November 2023, The Tablet

Bethlehem cancels Christmas events – Christian presence ‘not sustainable’

Representatives from the World Health Organisation were describing Dar al-Shifa, the Gaza Strip’s largest hospital, as a “death zone”.

Bethlehem cancels Christmas events – Christian presence ‘not sustainable’

Palestinians mourn Hussein Yousef Rabee, 25, at his funeral in the West Bank Dheisheh refugee camp, near Bethlehem, on Monday 30 October.
AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean

The municipal council in Bethlehem has cancelled all non-religious Christmas celebrations in the town this year in protest at the violence in Gaza, where deaths have reportedly passed 11,000.

The town, which lies six miles from Jerusalem in the occupied West Bank, will only host religious ceremonies and not the annual nativity scene and Christmas tree.

In a statement, the authority said that “all festive appearances in honour of the martyrs and in solidarity with our people in Gaza”.

The Patriarchs and Heads of the Churches in Jerusalem have called upon the faithful to forgo any “unnecessarily festive activities” during the Christmas season this year and to “stand strong” with those facing the afflictions of war.

On 15 November, to mark the end of the olive harvest, Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, presided over a traditional Mass with the faithful at Christ the Redeemer Church, in Taybeh (Ramallah), and blessed the olives.

“Despite the difficulties that the country is going through from persecution and war, we all gather to thank Jesus for the fruits of the land, which he has given us,” said the patriarch.

This year’s olive harvest has seen several Palestinians killed by Israeli settlers and many more harassed amid mounting settler violence.

Last Sunday Pope Francis again appealed for peace and prayers for those suffering in Palestine and Israel. Representatives from the World Health Organisation were describing Dar al-Shifa, the Gaza Strip’s largest hospital, as a “death zone”, with a mass grave at the entrance and only 25 staff left to care for 291 seriously ill patients after orders from the Israeli army to evacuate the complex.

Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP) raised concerns about the sustainability of the Christian community in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza in the face of military and settler violence. Before 7 October, the Christian community in Gaza numbered less than 1,000 people from various denominations, including Orthodox, Latin Catholic, Episcopalian, and Protestant traditions.

Israel's continued ground invasion of Gaza and relentless bombing campaign threatens to completely eradicate the Christian community in Gaza, says CMEP. The bombing of St Porphyrius Orthodox Church compound killed 18 Christians and left many more injured.

Hundreds of Christians are sheltering in the Holy Family Catholic Church in Gaza City but are quickly running out of food and other necessities. No place is safe from the ongoing Israeli military offensive, said CMEP.

The Al Ahli Anglican Hospital, one of the last functional hospitals in Gaza City, was surrounded by Israeli tanks on 16 November.

The Orthodox Cultural Centre, a newly-built facility bringing together Gazans from across religious communities, has been destroyed. The World Council of Churches (WCC) voiced support to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem following the destruction.

The CMEP warned that Christians are not only under threat in Gaza but in other parts of the occupied Palestinian territories as well. Israeli settlers have threatened to take large parts of the Armenian Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem.

The Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem said it had complained on 18 November about damage to their property but police responded that all members of the Armenian community must leave.

The patriarchate said: “We plead with the entirety of the Christian communities of Jerusalem to stand with the Armenian Patriarchate in these unprecedented times as this is another clear step taken towards the endangerment of the Christian presence in Jerusalem and the Holy Land.”

The CMEP suggested the US government has “a critical role to play in ensuring Christianity does not disappear in the land where it began”.

In Syria, Archbishop Julian Yacoub Mourad of Homs reiterated last week his view that the two-state solution for Israel and Palestine is the only way toward a just and sustainable peace in the entire region.

In Germany, several German bishops have distanced themselves from Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future initiative, after she wore Palestinian scarf to a climate conference in Amsterdam and chanted “No climate justice on occupied land”.

The Diocese of Hildesheim, whose bishop Heiner Wilmer visited Israel last week, issued a statement saying it “regards Ms Thunberg’s words on the escalation of violence in the Near East absolutely critically as they are one-sided and do not do justice to a complex situation and because they do not quite clearly distance themselves from anti-Semitism”.

The Archdiocese of Berlin told katholisch.de that it was “firmly on the side of our Jewish neighbours”, emphasising that Archbishop Heiner Koch was against all forms of anti-Semitism.  Koch has praised Thunberg in the past but faced criticism on social media after she became associated with the Palestinian cause.

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