Grieving and often overlooked, Palestinian Christians prepare for a somber Christmas amid war

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By MARIAM FAM (Associated Press)

It’s normally a moment of pure joy for the Rev. Khader Khalilia: the excitement, the giggles, the kisses, as his young daughters — in their Christmas pajamas — open their gifts. But this year, just the thought of it fills Khalilia with guilt.

“I’m struggling,” said the Palestinian American pastor of Redeemer-St. John’s Lutheran Church in New York. “How can I do it while the Palestinian children are suffering, have no shelter or a place to lay their heads?”

Thousands of miles away, near Jesus’ biblical birthplace of Bethlehem, Suzan Sahori has been working with artisans to bring olive wood Christmas ornaments into homes in Australia, Europe and North America. But Sahori is in no mood for festivities: “We’re broken, looking at all these children, all this killing.”

In a traditional season of merriment, many Palestinian Christians — in Bethlehem and beyond — are gripped with helplessness, pain and worry amid the Israel-Hamas war. Some are mourning, lobbying for the war to end, scrambling to get relatives to safety or seeking comfort in the Christmas message of hope.

In the occupied West Bank, Sahori, executive director of Bethlehem Fair Trade Artisans, an organization selling crafts, will pray for peace and justice. She’s grateful she’s safe — but wonders if that could change. She’s also angry.

“The joy in my heart is stolen,” she said. “I’m saying, ‘God, how are you allowing all these children to die?’ … I’m mad at God; I hope He forgives me.”

In better times, she finds the Christmas spirit in the Bethlehem area unmatched: It’s in songs cascading into streets bedecked with lights, markets displaying decorations, and the enthusiasm of children, families and tourists snapping photos with towering Christmas trees.

Now, it’s all quieter, somber. Tree lighting ceremonies she attended last year have been scrapped.

The heads of churches in Jerusalem have urged congregations to forgo “any unnecessarily festive activities.” They encouraged priests and the faithful to focus on Christmas’ spiritual meaning and called for “fervent prayers for a just and lasting peace for our beloved Holy Land.”

Thousands of Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s ongoing offensive in Gaza, launched after Hamas’ Oct. 7 killings and hostage-taking in Israel.

Days before Christmas, the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem said two Christian women at a church compound in Gaza were killed by Israeli sniper fire. The Israeli military said troops were targeting Hamas militants in the area; it said it was investigating the incident and takes such reports very seriously.

Khalilia is striving to comfort the distraught amid his distress.

“It’s hard to watch. It’s hard to do your job,” he said. “People are looking for us to walk with them in their suffering.”

He worries about family in the West Bank; a brother lost his income working for a hotel as travel cancellations pummeled tourism.

Khalilia, who’s from a town near Bethlehem, said his daughters will likely get fewer presents, with the savings going toward helping children in Gaza.

Many in the U.S., he said, don’t realize that Palestinian Christians exist — some ask if he converted from Islam or Judaism.

He tells them, “When you sing ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ on Christmas Eve, remember that Jesus was born in my hometown.”

There are 50,000 Christian Palestinians estimated to reside in the West Bank and Jerusalem, according to the U.S. State Department’s international religious freedom report for 2022. Approximately 1,300 Christians lived in Gaza, it said. Some Christians are also citizens of Israel. Many Palestinian Christians live in diaspora communities.

Susan Muaddi Darraj, a novelist in Baltimore, said Christians embody a diversity of Palestinians that gets erased. “Our existence … defies the stereotypes that are being used to dehumanize us.”

This Christmas, family gatherings have become more important for comfort, she said.

“Especially in the diaspora … where, for us, life feels like it’s stopped but everyone else around us is going about their daily business.”

Wadie Abunassar, a Palestinian Israeli in Haifa, said many in his Christian community are trying to balance the somber atmosphere with the Christmas message.

“Jesus came in the midst of darkness” and Christmas “is about giving hope when there’s no hope,” said Abunassar, a former Catholic Church spokesperson. “Nowadays, more than ever, we need this Christmas spirit.”

It hasn’t been easy.

“Being Israeli citizens, we feel the pain of our Jewish compatriots,” he said. “Being Palestinians, we feel the pain of our Palestinian brothers and sisters.”

In Bethlehem, the Rev. Munther Isaac, pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church, said tears flow during Sunday services. Many are anxious; some have packed up and left.

Isaac was part of a group that traveled to Washington to advocate for a ceasefire.

“A comprehensive and just peace is the only hope for Palestinians and Israelis alike,” said a letter signed by several Christian pastoral leaders in Bethlehem. Addressed to President Joe Biden, it asked him to help stop the war.

The signatories said they lamented all deaths, Palestinian and Israeli.

“We want a constant and comprehensive ceasefire. Enough death. Enough destruction. … This is our call and prayer this Christmas.”

Israel, whose forces have faced a ccusations by some of using excessive force, says it aims to destroy Hamas and accuses it of endangering civilians. Israel and its U.S. ally are also increasingly facing international alarm over the scope of deaths, destruction and displacement in Gaza.

Isaac’s church is displaying a nativity scene where a baby Jesus figure, wrapped in a back-and-white Palestinian keffiyeh, is lying in the rubble. Making the display was an emotional and spiritual experience, he said.

“We see Jesus in every child that’s killed, and we see God’s identifying with us in our suffering.”

This holiday season, longtime Gaza resident Suhair Anastas is wracked with guilt: She’s managed to escape the war in Gaza while others haven’t.

A Jordanian Palestinian, Anastas had been living in Gaza, where her late husband was from.

For more than a month, she and her 16-year-old daughter sheltered in a Catholic church’s school there. Death felt particularly close when a deadly Israeli airstrike struck a Gaza Greek Orthodox Church compound housing displaced people. Israel’s military said it had targeted a Hamas command center nearby.

“You go to sleep … thinking, ‘Will I wake up the next morning?’” Anastas said.

Her trip to the border — which involved driving, walking, taking a donkey-pulled cart and a cab — was terrifying.

“The bombings were around,” she said. A friend’s daughter, a child, kept asking: Are we going to die?

Anastas hopes to return to Gaza, but she’s unsure what’s ahead, or if her home will still be there.

Among the many questions over the future of Gaza and its more than 2 million people, is if its tiny Christian community will remain — and for how long.

Those still inside include Sami Awad’s relatives. A Palestinian American, Awad said he failed to get U.S. help for his family members, who don’t hold U.S. passports, to leave.

They have moved repeatedly, their latest shelter a windowless cement structure shared with others, said Awad, who’s in the West Bank. In sporadic communications, a cousin’s told him they were running out of the canned tuna and beans they’ve survived on.

He once told Awad, “If we die, don’t grieve too much for us, because it would have been mercy for us,” Awad said. At other times, the cousin yelled, “Save us. Get us out.”

“I feel completely helpless,” said Awad, dreading the prospect of bad news at any minute.

Hope came in the form of Australian visas for his relatives, including an elderly aunt and uncle, Awad said, but their names aren’t on lists needed to depart.

On Christmas, he said, “We’ll wake up, like every other day, to watch the news and to see what are the numbers of people that were killed.”

Awad wasn’t thinking about putting up a Christmas tree until his youngest daughter argued for one.

So now, a tree is up. On it, amid gold and red baubles, is a red, black, white and green Palestinian flag.

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Associated Press writer Melanie Lidman in Jerusalem contributed.

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Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.



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