BETHLEHEM, West Bank — At Christmastime, the world comes to Bethlehem. The rooftop of the city hall is packed with camera crews from around the globe to capture a towering tree in Manger Square as the bells toll for midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity, built upon the grotto where, by tradition, Jesus was born.
This year there will be no tree. No parades, bands or music. No lights. No markets, no feasts, no carols. No Santas handing out candy to the children.
And no pilgrims. No tourists.
In place of traditional holiday decorations, one church here has created a simple Nativity scene for Christmas 2023: Jesus enters the world amid a pile of Gazan rubble.
The atmosphere in Bethlehem on the eve of Christmas this year is somber, dark, sad — and political.
The mass of Boy Scouts who traditionally accompany the Latin Patriarch’s procession into the city — 28 troops’ worth, blasting bagpipes — has been pared down to a single silent troop. The boys will hold aloft Bible verses on peace and, perhaps, photographs of Gazan children.
Christian leaders here are careful to condemn the surprise Hamas attack on Israeli communities on Oct. 7, when the militants killed 1,200 people and took about 240 more hostage, triggering current hostilities. But they appear most focused on the war since. The Israel Defense Forces, fighting to eradicate Hamas, have killed more than 20,000 people in Gaza, the enclave’s Health Ministry said Friday. With water, food and shelter all short, international aid groups warn a humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding.
The West Bank city of Bethlehem is uncharacteristically quiet on the eve of Christmas as the war in Gaza continues. (Video: Joe Snell/The Washington Post)
The Holy Land is home mostly to Jews and Muslims. But 2 percent of the Palestinian population of the West Bank is Christian, with many of them proudly tracing their roots back a millennium or more. There also exists a tiny remnant of Christians — maybe a thousand people, no more — in Gaza.
In his annual Christmas message, Bethlehem Mayor Hanna Hanania spoke this year of mourning — and condemned Israel’s prosecution of the war in Gaza as “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide.”
So did the head of the chamber of commerce. “I am sad and upset at the moral failure of the West” to stop the killing of civilians in Gaza, Samir Hazboun said.
Christian clergy here use similar language, blaming the failure to protect the innocent on world leaders including President Biden.
The Rev. Munther Isaac, pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church, stood beside the small Nativity scene in his chapel. The baby Jesus sat amid flickering candles atop a pile of busted cement and dirty stone.
“This is what Christmas looks like in Palestine,” Issac said. “This is the true message.”
At first, he said, the idea of placing the birth of Jesus in a war zone “was shocking — it was hard for even our own people. But it left a strong impression because the image is very real, it confronts you with the reality — then and now — in a very powerful way.”
“If Jesus were born today,” he said, “he would be born in Gaza amid the rubble.”
“Who can sing ‘Joy to the World’ today?”
Photos of the scene have gone viral. A similar installation is to be placed in Manger Square before Christmas Eve.
Today, Isaac said, the Christmas story feels more contemporary than ever. In the Gospel of Matthew, Joseph, a Jewish man living in Palestine under Roman rule, is forced to report to Bethlehem for a census. He takes his young, pregnant wife, Mary. Unable to find lodgings — there’s no room at the inn — they settle in a stable.
There, in a manger — a feed trough for animals — Mary gives birth to the child who the faithful believe is the son of God.
King Herod of Judea, learning of the birth of a rival, orders that all male children under 2 be killed: the Slaughter of the Innocents. Jesus, Mary and Joseph flee to Egypt.
“So the story is Jesus is born into hardship, lived under occupation, survived a massacre and became a refugee,” Isaac said.
“This is a story we Palestinians can understand.”
Bethlehem is just a few miles south of Jerusalem in the occupied West Bank. There are 12 miles of high wall and fencing. There are Israeli checkpoints to get in and out of the city, where Palestinians on foot pass through scanners and answer questions by Israeli border guards. Many of those check points are closed now, or only open a few hours a day, because of the Gaza war and the rise in violence in the West Bank.
Hanania said he “cannot believe what we are watching in Gaza. These are the worst days that Palestinians have ever seen.”
In the lead-up to the holiday this year, the painstakingly renovated Church of the Nativity, which dates back to the 6th century, has seen almost no visitors.
A few journalists wandered about. A Danish priest and his daughter came. A local family marveled at the graffiti from the Crusades and the restored 12th-century mosaics depicting hovering angels.
“It’s like the covid times, but worse,” custodian Nicola Hadur said.
In a normal year, he said, pilgrims and tourists would wait in multiple lines for hours to see the cave in which Jesus is said to have been born.
There are 78 hotels and 5,700 rooms in Bethlehem today. In normal times, 6,000 tourists come daily — you can’t move for the tour buses.
There were only 624 foreign visitors during the entire month of November, according to the tourist police. Most were from Indonesia.
Behind the Church of the Nativity, Victor Tabah’s souvenir shop sat empty.
“I do not blame anyone for this situation, not Hamas or anyone,” the 77-year-old grandfather said. “We have to blame ourselves, we need to be strong and have to keep going.”
This year? “Christmas is finished, we do not see Christmas anymore, it is supposed to be for our children, but we do not have a Christmas anymore,” said Tabah, who has three children and seven grandchildren.
Rami Asakrieh, a Franciscan friar, is pastor of St. Catherine’s Church, where midnight Mass is to be celebrated. (Masses by the Orthodox and other Christian faiths will follow.)
“They say that we are canceling Christmas,” Asakrieh said. “But we have only canceled the celebrations of Christmas. We will say Mass.”
“It’s impossible to celebrate when so many — on both sides — have lost so much,” he said. “We canceled the festivities as a sign of solidarity with the victims of the war.”
Asakrieh joined the other clerics of Bethlehem last month in sending a letter to Biden and to Congress. “God has placed political leaders in a position of power so that they can bring justice, support those who suffer, and be instruments of God’s peace,” they wrote.
“We need the Christmas message more than ever,” Asakrieh said. “We need the peace and love. We need the light.”
Heidi Levine contributed to this report.