02 January 2024, The Tablet

Christmas a ‘season of grieving’ in Bethlehem

On New Year’s Day, the Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa described the “courage” and “madness” of peace.

Christmas a ‘season of grieving’ in Bethlehem

Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa at the entrance of the Pro-Cathedral of the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem, where he presided at Mass for the Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem / CNA

Bethlehem held subdued Christmas celebrations as it mourned the more than 8,000 children killed in the Holy Land since 7 October.

In his homily on Christmas Eve at the Church of the Nativity, Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, noted that “when Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem she gave birth to the Lord in a manger because ‘there was no room for them’,” while “this year there is no room for the people of Gaza…even though their suffering ceaselessly cries out to the whole world.”

“This is the situation in which the Palestinian people have been living for too long,” he said, “waiting for the international community to find solutions to end the occupation under which they are forced to live and its consequences.”

While acknowledging that “each of us is entrapped by our own pain”, he continued: “Christmas is precisely about this – God making Himself present in a human way and opening our hearts to a new way of looking at the world.”

On New Year’s Day, the Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Cardinal Pizzaballa described the “courage” and “madness” of peace in his homily at Jerusalem’s pro-cathedral.

“I am more and more convinced that in this complex context, the main vocation and mission of the small Christian community is precisely this: to cherish the desire for encounter, to cultivate freedom in relation to all, to overcome ethnic, religious, and identity boundaries,” he said.

“It is my dream, and it is the madness that I would like to share with all this small and beloved church in Jerusalem.”

The Lutheran pastor Munther Isaac said that Christmas 2023 was “a season of grieving for Palestinian Christians”.  His church in Bethlehem displayed a crib of “Jesus in the rubble”.

“This is what Christmas is in Palestine: displaced families, destroyed homes and children under the rubble,” he said. He mourned “the shattered lives on both sides of the Israeli-Hamas war” and criticised Western support for Israel’s operations in Gaza, saying it was “unfathomable to me".

In their Christmas message, the Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in Jerusalem condemned all violence.

“We call upon the people of this land and around the globe to seek the graces of God so that we might learn to walk with each other in the paths of justice, mercy, and peace,” they said.

After the Angelus last Sunday, Pope Francis remembered the people of Palestine and Israel as he prayed for the thousands of lives shattered by violence and war in 2023 across the globe. He appealed to those who have a “stake” in armed conflicts “to listen to the voice of their conscience”.

Earlier in December, the chief rabbi of South Africa has claimed that Pope Francis is “colluding with the forces of evil” for his stance on the war.

In a video published on social media, Rabbi Warren Goldstein said: “In comparing Israel’s just war of self-defence to the barbarism of Hamas, Pope Francis repeats the sins of Pope Pius XII from the Nazi era of surreptitiously supporting the forces of evil who seek to annihilate the Jewish people.”

South Africa’s bishops rejected these allegations, which were prompted by claims that the Pope had told the Israeli president Isaac Herzog that it was “forbidden to respond to terror with terror.”

In an open letter to Goldstein, the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference said: “The emotions with which you uttered these statements suggest that you believe that the Pope hates Jews, hence you call him to repent, [but] nothing could be further from the truth.

“Pope Francis began his papacy by visiting Israel in 2014. During that journey, he expressed joy about Catholics and Jews being ‘bound by a very special spiritual bond’.”

Israel’s ambassador to the Holy See Raphael Schutz also criticised the Pope’s comments on the war.  In an interview with the news outlet Crux, he said that “no responsible leader in the free world” had described the war as “terrorism” as the Pope has done.

Schutz also accused the Latin Patriarchate of a “blood libel” in its statement following the deaths of two women in the Catholic parish in Gaza, which said they had been shot by the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) “in cold blood”.  The patriarchate had “lashed into publishing a text naming Israel as a country of murder”, he said.

The IDF conducted Christmas Day raids on Palestinian targets in the occupied West Bank, including in Bethlehem, Nablus, Jericho and Ramallah.

The UN has documented the killing of 300 Palestinians – including more than 50 children – by Israeli security forces and settlers in the West Bank since 7 October.

In Jerusalem, there was an attack on clergy and members of the Armenian community on 28 December. The Armenian Patriarchate reported that “over 30 armed provocateurs” broke into the grounds of the Cow’s Garden and injured priests, deacons and students of the Armenian Theological Academy.

“Israel is a state of law and order and such criminal behaviour cannot be tolerated and go unpunished,” the patriarchate said in a statement.

Rabbis for Human Rights have been supporting communities in the West Bank with humanitarian aid. The group reported last week that “in addition to the economic concerns, there is a deeply unsettling rise in settler violence and army aggression”.

On 5-26 January, the group will be planting trees every Friday with Palestinian communities in the Occupied Territories and in the Unrecognised Villages in the Negev, “as a symbol of hope in a shared, just and peaceful future for us all”.

The World Council of Churches (WCC) used its holiday sermon to call on the world’s Christians to stand in solidarity with the people of Gaza.

“Since the shocking attacks of 7 October in southern Israel, in which Hamas militants killed 1,200 people – mostly civilians – and took 240 others hostage, Israel’s military response in Gaza has become tantamount to a war not only against Hamas but against all the people of the territory,” it said.

It lamented the displacement “of a staggering 1.9 million people, more than 80 per cent of the population”, and the destruction of essential services such as healthcare and education. 

“We pray that the people of the region will be liberated from the suffering imposed on them by vengeful violence and illegal occupation,” said the WCC, “and there must – as an essential basis for any future sustainable peace in the region – be full accountability for crimes committed by Israeli armed forces and settlers as well as by Hamas militants.” 

In Lebanon, up to 90 per cent of the population of southern Lebanon’s Christian villages have reportedly left their homes since October, seeking safety from daily rocket fire exchanged on the Israel-Lebanon border by the IDF and Hezbollah.

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