On the Ground

Bethlehem prays for peace in Gaza: ‘I have never seen a Christmas like this’

Normally at this time of year, Bethlehem is full of thousands visiting one of Christianity’s most holy cities. But Bel Trew finds empty streets, shuttered shops and a central square without its famous Christmas tree. Church leaders say the situation in Gaza makes any form of celebration impossible – and they need people to be united in a message of peace

Saturday 23 December 2023 12:59 GMT
Greek Orthodox priest Father Spiridon at the virtually empty Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem
Greek Orthodox priest Father Spiridon at the virtually empty Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (Bel Trew/The Independent)

Manger Square in Bethlehem is a ghostly car park. The streets surrounding it are lined by shuttered shops. At the centre, the Church of the Nativity, feted as the birthplace of Christ which more than a million pilgrims visit every year, is virtually empty.

The only sign of life is the toll of church bells for a mass that no one will attend. One of Christianity’s most holy cities is in deep and painful mourning.

“We have never seen Bethlehem like this,” says Father Issa Thaljieh, the church’s Greek Orthodox parish priest, as fellow clerics mouth prayers in the background.

Usually, just before Christmas, the central square in the occupied West Bank should be crowned with a dazzling Christmas tree, next to a nativity scene on a stage. Boy and Girl Scouts sing Christmas songs in English and Arabic.

Thousands of visitors from all over the world crowd into the city and line up to visit the grotto to pay their respects at the site where Jesus is said to have been born.

But this year, with a devastating war raging in Gaza, there is none of that. The Israeli military has also closed the main checkpoint into Bethlehem, citing security concerns – barring access to the famous city for many Palestinians.

And so, Christmas is cancelled.

A worshipper prays for peace at the grotto inside the Church of the Nativity (Bel Trew/The Independent)

“We cannot celebrate when so many of us feel sad and scared by what is happening in Gaza,” Father Thaljieh says. He talks about his worries for parishioners in the tiny besieged enclave, who right now are cowering in the Catholic and Orthodox churches in Gaza City under the heaviest bombardment by Israel ever recorded.

“We said this year, it is better to come together, be united in prayer... we cannot celebrate.

“All we can do is send a message: the message that has been the same coming from here since Jesus was born – one of peace and love.”

Behind him, preparing for Mass, Father Spiridon, 75, who is also a Greek Orthodox cleric, agrees.

“I have been here for 54 years. I have never seen a Christmas like this, not even during Covid. Nobody can come in,” he says as a handful of locals light candles in the background.

“Christmas is about love and peace, and this is our message. We must be peaceful in the Holy Land.”

Bethlehem would normally be full of visitors at this time of year (Bel Trew/The Independent)

Israel has launched a crippling siege and a ferocious aerial bombardment of Gaza in retaliation for the 7 October attack by Hamas inside Israel, where militants killed around 1,200 people and took 240 hostages.

Since then, the health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza says Israeli strikes have killed more than 20,000 Palestinians, three-quarters of them women and children. Some 85 per cent of the territory’s 2.3 million residents have been displaced, and are living with dwindling access to food, medical supplies and water.

In tandem, violence has flared in the occupied West Bank, where the Palestinian Authority – which is dominated by Hamas’s rivals, Fatah – has limited self-rule. Over the last few weeks, Israel has launched regular and devastating raids on key cities, actions the military say are “counterterrorism operations”. They insist they are targeting armed militant groups, including those affiliated with Hamas.

Since 7 October, Israeli forces have killed 291 Palestinians, including 75 children, in the West Bank, making 2023 the deadliest year for Palestinians there since the UN began recording casualties in 2005. Of the dead, at least eight were killed by Israeli settlers, with rights groups recording a surge in settler violence as well. Four Israelis, including three members of the armed forces, have been killed in attacks by Palestinians in the West Bank.

Father Issa Thaljieh, the Greek Orthodox parish priest (Bel Trew/The Independent)

There have also been an unprecedented number of arrests in the West Bank, according to Palestinian and Israeli prisoner monitors – with thousands being held in administrative detention, meaning they are being detained without charge or trial, potentially indefinitely.

As part of the crackdown, the army has effectively sealed off much of the West Bank, closing checkpoints. This, local inhabitants say, means that even Palestinian Christians in Israel and the other parts of the West Bank cannot visit Bethlehem to pray there for Christmas.

“We don’t know how long this is going to go on for and then what will happen in the West Bank if the war in Gaza ends,” says Shukri, a Christian tour guide from Bethlehem. At Christmas, the 52-year-old would usually be shuttling visitors from across the world around the sights of the city.

He worries that even if there is a ceasefire in Gaza, an all-out war may eventually erupt in the West Bank as raids on the cities and arrests surge. “If they keep putting people under pressure, they will explode. If you put anyone in the corner and you push them enough, they will do something and react,” he says.

Many in Bethlehem have family members in Gaza, whom they are powerless to help.

Some of the shuttered shops in Bethlehem (Bel Trew/The Independent)

Those relatives have told The Independent that they fear the total “extinction” of Gaza’s 1,000-strong Christian community if the churches where most are hiding face continued bombing.

The overwhelming majority of Gaza’s Christians are now trapped in two churches in the war-blasted north of the besieged strip – the Holy Family Church, the only Catholic church in Gaza City, and the Orthodox Church of Saint Porphyrius. The two sit about two miles apart. Gaza City has been one of the focal points of Israel’s mission to eliminate Hamas.

Israeli tanks have closed in, food has been running out, and water is running low. Then, last week, church leaders said two women had been killed “in cold blood” by Israeli sniper fire. The two women – Nahida, an elderly grandmother with 15 grandchildren, and her daughter Samar, 49 – were killed as they tried to cross a courtyard to get to the bathroom in their besieged compound. The Israeli military has denied responsibility and maintains that it protects churches. An Israeli foreign ministry spokesperson said on Sunday that the incident was under review.

Nahida and Samar’s extended family back in Bethlehem told The Independent they had been unable to get them medical aid or evacuate them out of Gaza.

‘Jerusalem’s Santa’ says even though the streets are empty this Christmas time, he wants to send a message of peace and unity to all the families, from across the faiths, who visit him (Bel Trew/The Independent)

Across Bethlehem, families are glued to their TV screens for news of their loved ones in the territory.

“There is no safe place in Gaza, and the north is the most frightening,” says George, 31, whose own parents are stuck in the church where Nahida and Samar were killed. He asked for his identity to be protected.

“All we can do is pray,” adds Shireen Awwad, the head of Bethlehem’s Bible College, who also has loved ones trapped in the same church.

Sami Awad, who is a peace activist and director of the Holy Land Trust in Beit Jala next to Bethlehem, comforts his mother Amal, 83, who is barely able to speak and sits tucked in a blanket. He spends all day watching TV obsessively for any news of her brother and sister stuck in Gaza.

Sami says his family were living in the Rimal neighbourhood in Gaza, one of the areas hit hardest by Israel’s bombardment.

Inside the Church of the Nativity (Bel Trew/The Independent)

His aunt May, who is deaf and blind, had not left her house in Gaza City for 25 years, despite four previous wars. The bombing was so intense that, for the first time, relatives had to move her. Scared and confused, she was dragged screaming out of their home.

“This is the only place she knows. It was terrifying for her, but what could they do?” Sami says.

The family ended up being displaced multiple times as the bombing got closer. Now they are living in a makeshift concrete block alongside 30 other people, in a room with no water and no electricity.

“I feel completely powerless – I can’t do anything. At one point, my uncle told me if they are killed not to grieve too much, as it would be a mercy as their lives are so miserable.

“That broke me,” he adds after a pause.

Back in the Church of the Nativity, the clergy say the world needs to do more to bring an end to the war before the death toll surges any further.

“We need all the world to open their eyes and hearts and to support us not only in their prayers – not only aid,” says Father Thaljieh, as a mass without a congregation begins in the background.

“We need concrete action, we need a ceasefire, we need peace.”

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