BETHLEHEM — Rhema Halabi, a Christian Arab resident of Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, planned to attend her evangelical church’s Christmas play on the weekend before Dec. 25 and to participate in a communal dinner following the congregation’s Sunday prayer service.
But speaking just days before one of the holiest days in the liturgical season, Halabi, the mother of five grown children, couldn’t say where she will be spending Christmas Day itself.
That’s because part of her family lives in the West Bank, under Palestinian control, while other members live in Jerusalem, which Israel rules. Her holiday plans depend on whether Israel grants her and Bethlehem-based kin visitor permits.
Holy Land Christians, whose numbers have been decimated by emigration over the past several decades, face special challenges at Christmastime.
Many, perhaps most, are separated from loved ones, who live on the other side of a checkpoint.
Or an ocean, in the case of loved ones who have been forced to emigrate by the difficult circumstances Christians must cope with constantly.
Halabi’s three sons and their children live in the Bethlehem area. Her two daughters live in Jerusalem, which is on the other side of a huge wall Israel built to keep out terrorists. It worked, but the wall and checkpoints have sealed Palestinians inside the West Bank with almost no access to Israel.
Two of Halabi’s siblings reside in Bethlehem; the rest live in the U.S., Canada and Australia.
Having all her children together at the same time “isn’t easy. … My daughters are from the West Bank, but they live with their husbands in Jerusalem,” just a few miles away, Halabi said during an interview in the Christian bookstore where she works.
“It’s nearly impossible for them to get permission to visit us and then return to Jerusalem. If we’re lucky, those of us in the West Bank are granted permits twice a year, for Christmas and Easter."
If the permits arrive on time — every year, Israel issues thousands of permits that enable Christians in the West Bank and Gaza to visit Israel over Christmas and Easter — Halabi will travel to Jerusalem, where she has three grandchildren.
“I miss them very much,” she said wistfully.
Christmas in Bethlehem
Joseph Canavati, who owns the Alexander Hotel in downtown Bethlehem, said many of his family members have emigrated to the U.S., Mexico, Honduras and Cyprus.
The hotelier, his wife and son also lived in the U.S. for 16 years, but they returned to Bethlehem more than a decade ago.
“Emigration started in the 1920s, even earlier,” Canavati said, because of the economic situation at the time. Wars only served to hasten the exodus.
Despite the many challenges facing Holy Land Christians, who in 1948 comprised 25% of the population, but now account for less than 2%, Canavati said he wouldn’t want to be celebrating Christmas anywhere else.
“Things have improved; we have enough work now, and, for the first time, we have a real Palestinian government. It’s safer here than in many other places in the world, and that’s especially true of the Middle East.”
Like many Holy Land Christians, the Canavatis work in the tourism-pilgrimage field, and Christmas is their busiest season. They live in the hotel and will share a festive meal, time permitting, with their guests — Arab-Christian citizens of Israel.
“We’ll be at 120%, even 150%, capacity,” Yvonne Canavati, Joseph’s wife, noted with a smile.
Like the streets of Bethlehem, the Alexander Hotel was full of Christmas decorations, with a tree in the lobby. Guests will be treated to a Christmas dinner of lamb cooked in a wooden stove, grape leaves and zucchini stuffed with meat and rice, Middle-Eastern salads and Christmas cookies.
Joey Canavati, the couple’s 23-year-old American-born son, said it is a privilege to celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem, the place all eyes will be turned to on Christmas Eve.
“You’re in the birthplace of Christ. We’re not only reading the Bible, we’re living it.”
Parade and Mass
Marlen Atik, who owns a fine men’s clothing store with her husband in downtown Bethlehem, said she’ll be missing two of her siblings, who live in San Francisco, this Christmas, but she will spend time with her other two siblings who live in Bethlehem.
Atik, who is Catholic, plans to take her daughters to the annual Christmas parade, which features local Boy Scout troups, and attend midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity, with Fouad Twal, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, as principal celebrant.
Like many Bethlehem-area families, Atik arranged to have her children’s presents delivered by “Baba Noel” — the local name for Santa Claus.
Dressed in a neat school uniform, Atik’s 7-year-old daughter Lourdina (named for Lourdes) said she was “very excited” about Christmas.
Johnny Canavati, Joseph’s brother, owns a souvenir shop next to the hotel.
He, too, will be working “from morning till night,” on Christmas. “We’re open 365 days a year, and because tourism isn’t predictable, we have to do business whenever we can,” said Canavati.
Although business was good this year, Johnny said, the recent brief war between Israel and Gaza scared away pilgrims.
“Right now, it’s quiet,” he said, gazing at the half-dozen tourists in his store shopping for olive-wood figurines and Christmas ornaments. “We’re hoping many more will arrive, but we just don’t know,” he said as he dimmed some of his store’s lights to save on electricity costs as soon as the shoppers departed.
Life in Bethlehem is full of uncertainty, Johnny conceded, “but we have it a lot better than in Africa, Syria or Egypt. We’re safe, and we thank God for everything.”
Michele Chabin is the Register’s Middle East correspondent. She writes from Jerusalem.