BETHLEHEM — Msgr. Denis Madden, the associate secretary general for the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, loves Christmas in the Holy Land. He spent nine years there, working on behalf of the local Christian community.

“When you celebrate Christmas in the Holy Land, there's not the same drive to shop and buy. I think the atmosphere makes it easier to focus on what we're celebrating: the birth of Jesus Christ.”

Now based in the United States, Madden recalled spending Christmas Eve in Shepherds’ Field, which is next to Bethlehem.

“The Shepherds’ Field Mass was outdoors, and you could hear the dogs barking and the sounds of all the people. I imagine it was much the same all those years ago.” Msgr. Madden said he felt “privileged” to celebrate Christmas in the Holy Land because it afforded him the opportunity to show his solidarity with local Christians during a very difficult period.

“For me, it was so important to be with Palestinian Christians who are the living Christian community,” Msgr. Madden said. “They have a very difficult life, a very difficult time making a living, and they are so grateful for our presence.”

On Christmas Eve, the patriarch of Jerusalem will lead a colorful procession from Jerusalem to Bethlehem accompanied by other clergy and more than 800 Boy Scouts. An international assemblage of choirs will perform in the city, and Christmas Mass will be celebrated in St. Catherine's Church, in the stone compound of the Church of the Nativity.

Bethlehem's Michael Nasser noted that “to a large degree, Christmas is still celebrated here the way it was 2,000 years ago. The people have the same simplicity. It doesn't matter whether you're Catholic or Protestant or Orthodox. It's first and foremost a religious experience.”

Still, life is hard for Holy Land Christians. Maryam Azizeh, a Catholic who assists visitors at Bethlehem Peace Center's front desk, told the Register that her husband, a former driver who taxied around tourists, has been unemployed for more than two years. The $220 she earns every month is supplemented by occasional gifts from her brother, an immigrant in the United States.

“We're nine brothers and sisters, but three have left,” Azizeh said. “And I've heard that Muslims are leaving, too.” The reason, she said, is simple. “There are no jobs. Our young people graduate from good universities but don't have jobs to go to. They get depressed and decide to leave,” Azizeh said.

Like other Holy Land Christians, Muslims and Jews, Azizeh said she is praying for a miracle this holiday season. “I appeal to all people to come and see the holiest place in the world. See that we are not terrorists. See that we are normal people who love our savior, Jesus Christ, the King of peace.”

— Michele Chabin