Updated Dec 24, 2023 - World

Christmas celebrations canceled in Bethlehem as war rages in Gaza

The Christmas nativity scene at the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem this year.

The Christmas nativity scene at the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem this year. Photo: Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The celebrations traditionally enjoyed in Bethlehem — the "capital of Christmas" — are canceled this year, as the war in Gaza and violence in the occupied West Bank continue to devastate Palestinian communities.

The big picture: The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem arrived in Bethlehem on Sunday for the annual Christmas Eve procession to a quiet and subdued city. There were no marching bands, concerts, or cheering crowds. There were no Christmas lights and no tree towered over Manger's Square as it typically does.

  • Instead, rubble was added to nativity scenes and the traditional festive mood Palestinian Christians have during this time turned somber as they mourn the more than 20,000 Palestinians who have been killed in Gaza since the war began, according to the Ministry of Health in Hamas-run Gaza.
  • "This Christmas is like no other Christmas ... in my lifetime," said Varsen Aghabekian, who is part of the Armenian Christian community in the Palestinian city of Ramallah. "This year, it's a very sad time for all of us."

Driving the news: The Christmas season in the region usually lasts from mid-November through the Armenian and Eastern Orthodox celebrations in January.

  • But the heads and patriarchs of the major churches in the Holy Land issued a statement last month, calling on Christians to "stand strong" with those suffering Gaza and the West Bank by "foregoing any unnecessarily festive activities" and focusing on the spiritual meaning of Christmas instead.

Palestinian Christians told Axios that meaning is especially poignant this year as they read the biblical story of Jesus' birth. "I feel that the Christmas story is a Palestinian story," said Rev. Mitri Raheb, the president of Bethlehem's Dar Al-Kalima University.

  • Raheb pointed to the similarities of a pregnant Mary's experience to the tens of thousands of pregnant women in Gaza today. He said the story of displacement and killing happening in Gaza now echoes what was taking place at the time of Jesus' birth. "Jesus was born as a refugee," he told Axios.
  • "While we cancel the celebrations, the Christmas story [has never] been as fresh and as meaningful as now," he said.
Art work "Nativity under the Rubble" by Palestinian artist Tariq Salsa is seen in Manger Square near the Church of Nativity on December 23
Art work "Nativity under the Rubble" by Palestinian artist Tariq Salsa is seen in Manger Square near the Church of Nativity on Dec. 23. Photo: Maja Hitij/Getty Images

Zoom in: The Palestinian Christian population in Gaza and the West Bank has dwindled over the years. Just 1,000 Christians were living in the Strip before the war broke out, according to church leaders.

  • But those who spoke to Axios said the presence of Palestinian Christians remains vibrant through Christian-funded or led schools, hospitals, churches and other institutions across the region.
  • In Gaza, many of those institutions, including churches, have been hit by Israeli airstrikes and ground troops, said Sami El-Yousef, the CEO of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. He estimated roughly 2% to 2.5% of the Palestinian Christian population has been killed during the war.
  • That's part of the reason church leaders decided to cancel the celebrations this year, he said. "Any change from the status quo in a historic land like the Holy Land is not an easy decision," El-Yousef told Axios. "But given the greatness of what is happening and the attacks on the two [Gaza[ churches in particular ..., they had to make the difficult decision."

Zoom out: The occupied West Bank has also been severely affected by the war. Hundreds have been killed by Israeli forces and thousands have been arrested — some without charge — since the fighting broke out.

  • Many Palestinians are out of jobs and the tourism industry that cities like Bethlehem thrive on has all but collapsed. In years past, up to 150,000 pilgrims visited the city during the Christmas season. But this year, the streets are largely empty and many of the shops, hotels and restaurants are closed.
  • "Bethlehem is the capital of Christmas. It's where started," said Rev. Jack Sara, president of Bethlehem Bible College. Normally, the city is bustling with people and events during this time, but today it's "really dead," he told Axios.

It's unclear how long the war will go on. Israel continues to widen its offensive, including pushing further into southern Gaza. It has vowed to remain in the enclave until it destroys Hamas and brings all hostages taken by the militants during the Oct. 7 attack on Israel home.

  • But Palestinian Christians, like many Palestinians, told Axios there will be no peace until Israel's occupation ends — and there's equality for all living in the region.
  • "If there's no justice, it's impossible to have peace," said Omar Harami, a Christian Palestinian who works for the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Centre in Jerusalem.
  • That's the message they hope those who celebrate the holiday hear as they read the Christmas story and sing hymns about Bethlehem over the next few days.
Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Pierbattista Pizzaballa (C) arrives in the biblical city of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank ahead of Christmas Eve
Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Pierbattista Pizzaballa arrives in the biblical city of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank on Christmas Eve. Photo: Hamza Bader/AFP via Getty Images
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