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In Jerusalem’s Christian Quarter, ‘it doesn’t even feel like Christmas’

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Jerusalem’s Christians describe a bleak Christmas season as they pray for the people of Gaza instead of celebrating.

Old City occupied East Jerusalem – In the Christian Quarter, it doesn’t look a lot like Christmas this year.

There are almost no lights, no decorations and no Christmas trees.

During a normal December, the aged limestone streets and alleys are brightly lit and bustling with pilgrims and locals alike, accompanied by Christmas carols from nearby shops.

On these silent nights and days, the streets are mostly empty.

“It doesn’t even feel like Christmas,” said Christo, a soft-spoken Palestinian shopkeeper from inside his Christian souvenir shop stocked with beautiful religious garments while angelic music plays in the background.

Even COVID-19’s economic devastation and the second Intifada’s blood-curdling violence did not affect Christmas celebrations in Jerusalem to such a degree. Many Palestinian Christians say this Christmas in Jerusalem is unprecedented for how devoid it is of Christmas joy.

“In the first and second Intifada, we had some difficult times,” said Bishop Emeritus of the Lutheran Church Munib Younan, 73, sitting next to a winter fire. “But it was different. Because we put up the [Christmas] trees. We wanted to bring joy in the times of difficulties. But now you see children [in Gaza] who have no home, who are hungry.

“To put [up] a tree is expressing a kind of joy,” said Bishop Younan. “And now is a time of sorrow. If you lose a member of your family, in our custom, you don’t put [up] a tree at that time. You concentrate that time on prayers.”

On November 10, the heads of the churches in Jerusalem released a joint declaration “to stand strong with those facing such afflictions by this year foregoing any unnecessarily festive activities”, calling instead to “advocate, pray and contribute generously” for the victims of the ongoing war.

Subsequently, all Christmas-related activities outside of prayer, whether it be the annual Christmas market near the New Gate or holiday parties and gatherings, have been cancelled. This Christmas, most families are making do with eating a simple meal and attending Mass.

“Every Christmas, we gather as a family with our parents, children, grandchildren – [this year], we don’t feel like doing this,” said Anton Asfar, secretary-general of Caritas Jerusalem, a Catholic relief, development and social services organization, at his office. “We feel like we are doing something privileged, because others are suffering.”

In Gabi Hani’s home in the Old City, they put up a Christmas tree in private, “for the boys to at least have the meaning of Christmas for them”, he said.  Hani’s three boys are aged 10, nine and five.

“The real psychological damage is not on me,” he said. “It is for the children that ask too many questions: ‘Is Hamas bad? Is Israel bad? Are Palestinians bad? The children are innocent. Why are they being killed? Which rocket is stronger?’

“I try to be diplomatic with my boys, not teaching hatred for the Israelis, for Jewish people. I try to say both sides should be better,” said Hani, who owns the Versavee Restaurant near Jaffa Gate – now closed. “It is difficult to teach my son these kinds of bitter realities at Christmas time.”

Glimmers of life in the streets of the Christian Quarter this Christmas appear for about half an hour in the afternoon when schools finish. All at once, the silence is broken by students in school uniforms scurrying along the limestone alleyways, the random Santa hat poking out among the buzzing children.

But within the Christian schools in Jerusalem – a bedrock of education for Palestinian children in Jerusalem for Christians and Muslims alike – there are few signs this year that it is Christmas.

At the College des Freres school at New Gate, Principal Brother Daoud Kassabry said there are no Christmas trees in classrooms or decorations in their office as there usually would be. The only sign of Christmas is a Nativity scene they put up in front of the church. “The young children, five, six years old – they are asking us where our gifts for Christmas are, because we had no gifts for them this year,” said Brother Kassabry.

Source: Aljazeera News


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