Contributed Photo / Reverend Munther Isaac
Baby Jesus amid rubble in Lutheran Church’s nativity scene.
Bethlehem in the Israel-occupied West Bank is considered Jesus’ birthplace, yet the city was empty with no holiday lights, decorations, tourists or Christmas trees last month.
Local churches cancelled all usual festivities and celebrations to show solidarity with Palestinians during the war, who have been under constant bombardment, continuous oppression and ongoing violence since Oct. 7. Only the masses and prayers continued.
“Some people in the West forget the existence of Palestinian Christians. This war affects everything Palestinian, whether Muslim or Christian,” said Bethlehem local Reverend Munther Isaac. “It is our responsibility now to raise our voices as a nation to stop this war.”
For Christmas, the Lutheran Church in Bethlehem displayed a nativity scene that reflected the realities of children in Gaza today with baby Jesus placed amid rubble. Artist Tarek Salsaa presented a public sculpture that depicts the traditional nativity scene but with the Holy Family in a completely bombed-out cave.
“If Christ were to be born today, he would be born under the rubble and Israeli shelling,” said Isaac. “This is a powerful message we send to the world celebrating the holidays.”
Students at Wilfrid Laurier University in Brantford heard about Bethlehem cancelling Christmas just before the holiday through social media. Milena Rios, a third-year social work student with a minor in youth and children’s studies, said the reverend’s statement is “completely accurate.”
“If [Jesus] was born today,” said Rios, “he’d be experiencing everything that all the children, the adults, the teenagers, everyone in Gaza would be.”
Photos of the nativity scene spread quickly online and Melina Levesque, a second-year human rights student, said “most people don’t expect to see an image like that.” She said it’s unfortunate that celebrations were cancelled, especially considering the significance of Christmas in Bethlehem, but this also shows where local Christians stand on the war and how strongly.
“Why would [Bethlehem churches] especially be celebrating Christmas and all these festivities where there’s a genocide happening right now?” said Rios. “It also helps bring awareness as well, which is what we need. We need more awareness to go around and people to understand what is happening and why it needs to stop.”
Kal Ing, a third-year human rights and human diversity student, said the war doesn’t stem from an issue of religion, yet some wrongly involve religious doctrine to justify the violence. When churches take a stand, it can help debunk these religious excuses.
“I feel like Bethlehem cancelling Christmas is their way of showing their humanity in the situation and trying to appeal to the people who are using religious justifications for their violence [against Palestinians],” said Ing.
Just days before Christmas on Dec. 16, Nahida Khalil Anton and her daughter, Samar Kamal Anton, were shot and killed by Israeli snipers as they walked towards the Sisters’ Convent to seek refuge from the war in Gaza’s only Catholic Church, according to the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. The Israel Defense Forces denies this happened.
“I continue to receive very grave and painful news from Gaza,” said Pope Francis in an announcement one day later. “Unarmed civilians are the objects of bombings and shootings. And this happened even inside the Holy Family parish complex, where there are no terrorists, but families, children, people who are sick or disabled, nuns.”
IDF tanks fired rockets and hit the convent on the same day the women were killed. This made it “inhabitable” for the more than 54 disabled persons it sheltered and who had to relocate afterwards, according to the Latin Patriarchate.
“Some are saying, ‘This is terrorism and war,’” the pope said. “Yes, it is war. It is terrorism.”
Rios said she thinks churches should be supporting the Palestinian people and the continuous calls for a ceasefire.
“If you value life, you can see that what the Israeli military is doing is genocide,” said Rios. “How is killing all these people not a sin?”