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Christmas is cancelled in Bethlehem, the town where it all started

Christmas is traditionally a boom time in Bethlehem. Crowds of tourists and pilgrims usually throng the streets, keen to visit where Jesus is said to have been born.

This year, however, the roads are empty, the shops shut, and Manger Square, the town’s centre, will be silent. The Church of the Nativity, built on the site where Mary is believed to have laid her firstborn among the animals in the stable, is normally busy with visitors by now.

Not this year.So why, when Bethlehem is about 50 miles from Gaza — where Israeli forces have sought out Hamas militants since their atrocity in Israel on 7 October — are people not marking Christmas in the town?

One reason is business. Pilgrims from around the world are staying away, unwilling to risk the possibility of conflict affecting Bethlehem, south of Jerusalem.

For those who do make the journey, there are far more checkpoints, installed since the attack, to negotiate. People who live in Bethlehem, but work beyond it, have often been blocked from leaving by Israeli forces since 7 October.The journey has ever been easy.

Bethlehem is right by the Israeli-built West Bank barrier that hinders access.But there is more to the decision by the town to cancel Christmas. Church leaders and the city council decided in November to abandon festive celebrations as a mark of solidarity with the people of Gaza.Many people living in Bethlehem have links to Gaza through family, whether they are Muslim or Palestinian Christians.

And there has also been a surge in violence on the West Bank since the outbreak of conflict in Gaza.Dr Mitri Raheb, rector of Dar al-Kalima University in Bethlehem, an arts and culture college, described the cancellation of festivities as “a sign of mourning for the thousands of civilians murdered in Gaza”.

He highlighted parallels between today and when Jesus was born to the situation today. “The Christmas story is a Palestinian story par excellence,” Dr Raheb said. “It talks of a family from Nazareth who is forced by the Roman Empire to evacuate from the north of Palestine to the south, to Bethlehem. Jesus was born to this displaced family.

“There was no place for him at the inn so he was born in a manger. The situation in Palestine and the Roman occupation 2,000 years ago was not easy at all. In fact, King Herod ordered the massacre all the children in the Bethlehem area. Over 8,000 children have been murdered in the Israeli airstrikes in Gaza within five weeks.”

The Gaza Ministry of Health estimates at least 18,000 people have been killed in Gaza since October, including 8,000 children.

The impact of the conflict on the Bethlehem economy is huge. Even before the church leaders and city council officials decided to cancel festivities, many pilgrims decided to stay away. As well as the hotels, restaurants and shops that will normally be busy at this time of year, there are other businesses affected too. Bethlehem residents have long made a living from olive wood carvings, including nativity scenes, that they sell to tourists.

While the churches of Bethlehem have cancelled their celebrations and are open only for prayers and services, one church has created a nativity display showing baby Jesus in a manger surrounded by bomb site rubble.Munther Isaac, pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church, said:

“If Christ were to be born today, he would be born under the rubble and Israeli shelling. This is a powerful message we send to the world celebrating the holidays.”He told Al Jazeera:

“Bethlehem is sad and broken. We are all in pain about what is happening in Gaza, feeling helpless and overwhelmed by our inability to offer anything.”Among the hotels that have closed is the Walled Off hotel, opened in 2017 by the artist Banksy.

A mile from the centre of Bethlehem and 500 metres from the checkpoint to Jerusalem, it was set up to provide not only accommodation but also a gallery for Palestinian artists. But its managers have decided in the current circumstances that it cannot stay open.

The Tantur Ecumenical Institute, set on a hilltop overlooking Bethlehem, and 200 metres from the Israeli security wall, was founded after the Second Vatican Council to encourage ecumenical dialogue.

Its rector, the Jesuit priest Father John Paul, said many staff had been stopped from going to work, and many people who had been attending courses at the institute went home after 7 October.Even for those left, he said, the institute “has had to adjust its programmes.

Well, Excursions aren’t possible when there are raids and rockets.”Tantur has always employed Palestinian and Israeli staff. For those who manage to get to work, Fr Paul said, “they put on a happy face but under the surface you can sense the stress and anxiety”

.For the team at Tantur, trying to bring people together in dialogue for decades, the current situation is particularly distressing. “We are seeing disturbing rhetoric, people being demonised and dehumanised,” he said.

While Fr Paul has left Tantur briefly to see family on a long-planned trip to the United States, he has every intention of returning soon after Christmas. “People were saying, ‘Are you leaving?’ But it is crucial to be there as an act of solidarity. It is my work, my ministry and my home.”

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