‘It Is Truly a Tough Time’: Holy Land Christians Endure Hardships This Christmas
For the Christians of Gaza, Christmas will be very, very quiet, but more meaningful than ever...
JERUSALEM — The festive Christmas trees, holiday fairs and colored lights that are such an integral part of Advent and Christmas in the Holy Land will be absent this year not only in Gaza, but in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth and Amman, as well.
At a time when the Hamas-Israel war is claiming lives and causing widespread displacement, leaders of the various Holy Land churches have asked their communities to forgo public Christmas festivities. The solidarity initiative began on Nov. 5 in Jordan, where leaders of the country’s Council of Churches asked local Christians to celebrate Christmas at home and in church through prayer.
Soon afterward, the patriarchs and heads of the churches in Jerusalem issued a similar statement calling for Palestinian and other Holy Land Christians to focus on the spiritual aspects of Christmas and to pray for the war’s victims and those in dire need.
“Thousands of innocent civilians, including women and children, have died or suffered serious injuries. Many more grieve over the loss of their homes, their loved ones, or the uncertain fate of those dear to them. Yet despite our repeated calls for a humanitarian ceasefire and a de-escalation of violence, the war continues,” the church leaders said.
For the Christians of Gaza, Christmas will be very, very quiet, but more meaningful than ever, according to Institute of the Incarnate Word Father Gabriel Romanelli, pastor of the Holy Family Catholic Church in Gaza.
“It is truly a tough time,” Father Romanelli said during an interview with the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.
“It is important, of course, not to have big celebrations” for Christmas, he said. “It is a sign of solidarity and respect to those who have lost loved ones, to those who are wounded.”
On Oct. 18, Israeli air strikes damaged the compound of St. Porphyrios Orthodox Church in northern Gaza. Eighteen Christians who had taken refuge in the church were killed and 30 were injured. The homes of at least 60 families have been damaged or destroyed. Of the 1,017 Christians who lived in Gaza prior to the war, 50 have gone to southern Gaza and about 80 have been able to leave Gaza because they have dual citizenship or obtained visas. Some 650 Christian refugees are living in Holy Family Church, with another 250 or so taking refuge in the Orthodox church.
While both joy and food are scarce in Gaza, it is more important than ever to pray, Father Romanelli said. “We started to think spiritually. The birth of Jesus is at the center of our celebrations. So we will hold different spiritual activities for our parishioners, to help prepare spiritually for Jesus to be born in our hearts and lives.”
Franciscan Father Amjad Sabara, a priest of Jerusalem Parish-St. Saviour Church, said the colorful annual procession to Manger Square — which is one of the highlights of Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem — will be very modest this year. Tens of thousands of locals and pilgrims normally attend the event. This year, there are no pilgrims.
“There will not be a parade, no scouts and their drums,” Father Sabara explained, adding that Baba Noel (Father Christmas) may not be making an appearance this year. Instead, local clergy will quietly accompany Latin Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaballa to the Church of the Nativity, where the regular Christmas service will take place.
“Christmas will be more spiritual this year,” the priest said. “The novena we pray will be concentrated on peace and how to live with the challenges we are living with now. People are looking for God and praying for others. The only thing we can give Gaza today is our prayers.”
Sadness and Fear
Auxiliary Bishop William Shomali of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem said everyone in the Holy Land is full of sadness and fear and that the Church is sensitive to their suffering.
“We as a Church have empathy with the people. People are sad, both in Israel and in Palestine. There is death and suffering from what happened on the seventh of October and what is happening now in Gaza: the destruction, the homelessness. We cannot celebrate while people are living outdoors, their homes damaged or destroyed,” Bishop Shomali said.
The war has also affected Christians outside of Gaza.
With virtually no Christian pilgrims since mid-October, the tens of thousands of Christians — especially in Bethlehem but also in Jerusalem and Nazareth — are having a very hard time financially, Bishop Shomali said. And after the Oct. 7 Hamas massacre that left 1,200 dead and many more wounded, Israel canceled the work permits of the tens of thousands of Palestinian workers from Gaza and the West Bank, who earned much higher wages than they can earn on the other side of the checkpoint.
Despite the many challenges the war has brought, Bishop Shomali said, “We continue to sing; in church, we continue to sing and to celebrate and to recall the message of Christmas.”