Bethlehem, the biblical birthplace of Jesus, is notably subdued this Christmas Eve due to the ongoing conflict in Gaza. Traditionally adorned with festive lights and a Christmas tree, Manger Square now stands empty, devoid of the usual influx of foreign tourists who gather to celebrate the holiday.
Mitri Raheb, a Palestinian Christian theologian, expressed the somber mood, stating, “It’s a very sad Christmas. People are watching the news, they have friends and family members in Gaza. When they look and see the genocide taking place there, they are not up for celebrations. Also they are angry that the world cannot even agree on a ceasefire.”
In a departure from the usual nativity scene in Manger Square, this year’s depiction includes baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and farm animals amidst rubble and razor wire, inspired by images from Gaza. The conflict, which has claimed over 20,000 lives according to health authorities in Gaza. It has left the predominantly Palestinian population of Bethlehem in mourning.
Despite Bethlehem’s central role in the Christian story, the Byzantine-era Church of the Nativity, believed to be the location of Jesus’ birth, lacks the usual festive displays. The ongoing war, triggered by a Hamas attack in October, has not only dampened local spirits but also deterred foreign tourists who typically flock to Bethlehem for Christmas.
Pope Francis has condemned the violence in Gaza, accusing Israel of employing “terrorism” tactics. The Pope specifically mentioned an incident where an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) “sniper” allegedly killed two women near the Holy Family Parish complex. The IDF claims to target terrorists and infrastructure, not civilians, but the situation remains under review.
As Bethlehem is navigating through this difficult Christmas Eve. The city’s residents and the global Christian community express their grief and concern over the impact of the conflict.