The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in the West Bank is a sacred site for the two and a half billion Christians around the globe.
It was built on top of the cave where Christians believe Jesus was born, and their faith began.
When Father Issa Thaljieh takes a Global News team down, the only other person in the church is an Armenian tourist who describes the feeling of the space as connecting “with something very important.”
Normally, there would be thousands of people filing into and out of the church. But now, it is completely empty. One of the world’s oldest churches is now a casualty of one of the longest running conflicts.
“This is exactly what we are grieving, we are sad for what happening,” says Thaljieh.
“We would like actually to pray for peace, for love. This is what we need.”
But those prayers, this year, will be made in complete silence.
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Manger Square, right outside the church, is traditionally the focal point of Christmas celebrations. But not even the COVID-19 pandemic reduced it to what it is now.
Due to the conflict in Gaza, Christmas festivities in Bethlehem have been cancelled. No tree, no lights, no nativity scene. The only ones to be seen are being hand-crafted in wood factories along with crosses and other sculptures, only to sit on store shelves waiting for customers who aren’t coming.
“There is no one, it’s like a desert,” says Rony Tabash, a local shop owner. “I never seen Bethlehem in my life like that.”
And no one has ever seen Gaza like what is happening now.
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Around a thousand Christians live in Gaza. Over the weekend, a mother and daughter seeking shelter in the only Catholic church were killed. Catholic officials say they were shot by an Israeli sniper.
Pope Francis condemned the attack, calling the targeting of civilians “terrorism.”
Roughly 50,000 Christians remain in the West Bank, but the numbers are shrinking rapidly. Still, some say they will not leave.
“My role in Bethlehem is to keep the Christian community in Bethlehem, not to leave because I don’t want to turn this beautiful church a museum,” said Thaljieh.
For Tabash, a third-generation shop owner, leaving the Holy Land is not an option.
“For me, I always say we have a mission to resist, to remain in this place,” he said. “But we have to also think about our children, about our future. The children of Bethlehem.”
© 2023 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.
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