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Monday, December 25, 2006

Christmas in the Holy Land

Here's a roundup of the Christmas celebrations (or lack thereof) in Israel and the administered territories.

In Gaza, according to al-AP, midnight mass was cancelled in the Roman Catholic church, as were today's celebrations.
The head of Gaza's tiny Roman Catholic community on Sunday canceled Christmas eve's Midnight Mass celebration, citing recent Palestinian infighting between the rival Fatah and Hamas movements.

Father Manuel Musallem said Christian children in Gaza are scared, especially after the three young sons of a Palestinian security officer were gunned down in broad daylight as they went to school two weeks ago.

"The children told me Santa Claus won't come this year because it's too dangerous," he said.

Musallem celebrated evening Mass but called off Midnight Mass and Christmas day celebrations.

Only about 40 people attended the evening service, held at the community's church in a poor Gaza City neighborhood. A lone tree inside the building was modestly decorated with lights.

"The church used to be more full. It is empty this year because of the economic situation and the inside fighting," said Mehir Suweilam, a worshipper.

Musallem said the community was protesting the infighting, which has claimed 17 lives since the young children were killed, as well as the international boycott of the Hamas-led government. [Take the second half of that sentence with a grain of salt - this was probably written by a 'Palestinian' stringer. I highly doubt that any Christians support Hamas. CiJ] The sanctions have caused widespread hardship in Gaza.

But Gaza's Christians also have been on edge since Pope Benedict XVI offended many Muslims with a speech widely deemed as insulting to the Prophet Muhammed.

About 3,000 Christians live in Gaza, a conservative Muslim society of roughly 1.4 million people where the radical Hamas group enjoys wide popularity. The Roman Catholic community has roughly 300 people; most of the area's Christians are Greek Orthodox.
Now that they're done with the 'Saturday people' in Gaza, can the 'Sunday people' be far behind?

In Bethlehem, Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, the top Roamn Catholic official in Israel, appealed for 'Palestinians' to halt their recent infighting and called for an end to Israeli-'Palestinian' bloodshed during Christmas Eve celebrations.

"Shooting between brothers is not the road to freedom," he said.

News agencies report that 'moderate' 'Palestinian President' Mahmoud Abbas Abu Mazen attended the ceremony, where Sabbah spoke of the "fratricidal struggles" plaguing the 'Palestinians.'
"The conflict here has lasted too long," Sabbah said in his homily at midnight Mass. "It is high time that the leaders who have our destinies in their hands in this land - specifically, the Palestinian and Israeli leaders as well as those of the international community - it is time for all of them to take new measures that will bring an end to the long phase of death in our history and lead us into a new phase in the history of this Holy Land."

Sabbah asked all political leaders and military adversaries, including those "who are classified as extremists and terrorists " to "examine their conscience in order to enter a new path that puts an end to bloodshed, death, and, in these days, to new internal quarrels."

Sabbah also lamented the shrinking of the Christian population in the Holy Land. He said the exodus of Christians stems not from difficulties with the larger Jewish and Muslim communities, but first and foremost due to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. [I must disagree. The exodus of Christians from the administered territories - particularly Bethlehem itself - can be specifically traced to the beginning of the 'Palestinian Authority' in 1994. Every study I have seen shows a drastic decline in the Christian population starting from that date. That has nothing to do with Israel. It has to do with the Islamist and violent nature of the 'Palestinian Authority. CiJ]

"Helping the two peoples to begin a new era of peace, justice, and reconciliation in the region will assure the future of Christians in this land," he said.
In Nazareth, which is controlled by Israel and not by the 'Palestinian Authority,' thousands of people marched yesterday in celebration of Christmas. As you read this article, compare the description with Christmas just about anyplace in the Arab world today....
Thousands of Christian Arabs marched through the streets of Nazareth on Sunday to celebrate Christmas Eve in the boyhood town of Jesus.

The early-evening celebrants who meandered through the town's narrow streets to a major Christian shrine on a crisp wintry day included hundreds of teenage scouts dressed in uniform, children dressed as Santa Claus, and a marching band playing drums and bagpipes.

"Nazareth is one of the most important tourists sites in the country, and in the entire world," said Nazareth Mayor Ramez Jaraisah during a two-day tourism conference being held in the town intended to boost tourism to the northern town.

"We want to see Nazareth on the tourist map," concurred Tourism Minister Isaac Herzog during a holiday-eve reception with the city's religious leaders at the Basilica of the Annunciation, which was held under a huge stage banner that read 'Visit Nazareth Now.' The Basilica is built on the site where Christians believe that the Angel Gabriel appeared before the Virgin Mary and foretold the birth of Jesus two millennia ago. [Some of you may recall that a few years ago, Israel prevented the Muslims from building a mosque atop the Basilica of the Annunciation. CiJ]

Nazareth, which used to be heavily frequented by Israeli Jews on the weekends, has been hardhit by the Palestinian violence over the last six years, with many shops in the Old City forced to close their doors as both Israelis and foreigners stayed away.

With a respite in violence, locals and Tourism Ministry officials are hoping that the coming year will see a resurgence.

Still, only a sprinkling of foreign tourists could be seen walking the streets of Nazareth on Sunday evening as festivities got started.
The article goes on to report that Nazareth is now two thirds Muslim.

But Latin Patriarch Sabbah, who has to live with the 'Palestinian Authority,' is not the only one who has chosen to blame Israel for the Christian situation in our area. The Archbishop of Canterbury also is blaming the Jews because Muslims are harassing Christians into leaving the area. Al-AP has excerpts from what the Anglican leader intends to say today, Christmas Day in London. While some of it is true (I think it's fair to say that most people here don't believe a political solution is possible), the seemingly 'even handed' treatment of 'Palestinian' terror and Israeli reactions to it ignores the reality that one side wants peace and the other side rejects it:
Fresh from a visit to the Holy Land, Anglican spiritual leader Rowan Williams will say in a speech to be aired Monday that he found it chilling how many people in the region had given up hope in a negotiated peace settlement and urged the rest of the world not to turn its backs on the region.

Both Israeli and Palestinian communities feared a future in which they were allowed to disappear "while the world looks elsewhere," Williams said, according to the excerpts.

"Go and see, go and listen; let them know, Israelis and Palestinians alike, that they will be heard and not forgotten.

"Both communities in their different ways dread - with good reason - a future in which they will be allowed to disappear while the world looks elsewhere.

"The beginning of some confidence in the possibility of a future is the assurance that there are enough people in the world committed to not looking away and pretending it isn't happening.

"It may not sound like a great deal, but it is open to all of us to do; and without friendship, it isn't possible to ask of both communities the hard questions that have to be asked, the questions about the killing of the innocent and the brutal rejection of each other's dignity and liberty."

During his visit to Bethlehem, where Christians believe Jesus was born, Williams said Israel's security barrier, which cut through it, symbolized what was "deeply wrong in the human heart."
Williams misunderstood. While the 'barrier' (which is mostly a fence and not a wall as it is depicted in the mainstream media) symbolizes what's wrong in the human heart, it's not because Israel put up the barrier. What's wrong is that Israel needed to put up the barrier in the first place as an effective way to prevent terror.

But the Al-AP report was relatively mild. Londonistan author Melanie Phillips has been watching the Archbishop closely and is very critical of his treatment of Israel:

Ruth Gledhill, the religion correspondent of the Times and a Christian, takes a characteristically decent, moral and courageous position in criticizing the appalling misrepresentation of the Church of England of the plight of Bethlehem’s Christians and the scapegoating of Israel for their situation by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Ruth also draws attention to another grotesque development in churches around the country, as a direct result of the hatred of Israel that has now been whipped up by the church through its campaign of lies and distortion about Israel and the Arabs:

But just before anyone thinks I’m making a fuss out of nothing, and putting an unnecessarily negative slant on what is, I agree, a mission undertaken in hope and faith, just look at a few of the things happening in the UK around this area. In St Ives, the well-know Live Crib event has been abandoned by the local Roman Catholic church. Instead, they have erected their own ‘wall’. This protest exemplifies the views of so many Christian communities outside Israel.

This is not just happening in CofE churches. A reader sent me this article from the Catholic Herald, followed by her own remarks:

‘…this year, instead of the spectacular [Christmas] tableau, visitors will be staring up at an imposing grey replica portion of the wall built by the Israeli government to keep Palestinian suicide bombers at bay. In place of the crib will be a grim 30ft by 6ft assemblage of painted polystyrene floor insulation materials. This will be flanked by protest banners and ’stark photographs’ to drive home how ‘desperate and ugly the situation is in the Holy Land’. The piece continued that Father Paul Maddison, the parish priest ‘wants to highlight the plight of the Palestinian people’ and a description followed of the ‘Israeli wall’ that ‘will eventually become a 400-mile-long barrier of concrete slabs and barbed wire fences separating Israel from the West Bank.’ Reportedly, “Fr Maddison believes it has ‘devastated’ the lives of ordinary Palestinians. ‘Friends and family are separated, earning a living becomes more and more difficult, access to health care is severely restricted all in the town of Bethlehem that we sing about at this time of the year’”. However he ‘added that he could understand Israel’s need for security but argued that it was wrong to build the wall on Palestinian land. ‘”Israel has the right to live within safe and secure borders…No one can dispute that.’” The ‘replica’ wall will be erected on 15 December and taken down on 27 December. An Israeli Embassy spokesman was quoted at the end of the report, saying the ‘wall’ was a ‘cheap stunt’, that ‘over half of the Israelis’ killed by terrorists in 2005 “were killed by terrorists who came from or through Bethlehem. Today the town is ruled by the terrorist Hamas government. The Security Fence, which is less than four per cent of the total wall, has meant a 93 per cent decrease in terrorist attacks.’

Thus the report was presented with an attempt at balance, but what disturbed me was that, reportedly, the announcement of the ‘replica’ barrier was ‘announced to ’spontaneous applause’” at Sunday Masses at the church in question. I think this is a political rather than a religious stance - many Catholics are left wingish - and seems to reflect the stance of groups like CND and Campaign Against the Arms Trade. I’ve dropped out of both because of their anti-Israel campaigns. There are some who like me respond to items in the Catholic press but we are not organized; perhaps it is time we were. A couple of years ago there was a letter in one of the papers on Jewish responsibility for the crucifixion; a couple of us trounced the person concerned with Church teachings, especially from Vatican II - it turned out he was a member of that part of the Church that broke away in protest at Vatican II, so I don’t think he was typical in terms of theological opinion, especially as the issue didn’t resurface. As I say, I believe the ‘barrier’ story is indicative of a political rather than religious stance, exacerbated by ignorance encouraged by our biased media; it seems this ‘left-right’ split also applies to Jewish opinion, from what I can gather from the Jewish papers? I started to read them when I was studying for a degree in Jewish Christian relations and confess to being baffled by the stances on Israel - however it does go to show what rubbish the ‘Jewish Conspiracy’ is - one would have expected a greater degree of unanimity for a decent conspiracy, after all.

Quite apart from the lies and distortions embodied by these displays, what also comes across is a distressing echo of the most ancient prejudice of all against the Jews. For the replacement of the traditional nativity by Israel’s security fence carries the unmistakeable message that the Palestinians are the modern version of the suffering Christ, being persecuted by the Jews. It’s the crucifixion libel all over again.

Later in the post, Ms. Phillips follows with a letter to Rowan Williams from Tony Pearce, pastor of The Bridge Christian Fellowship.’ That letter is a must read (but I want you to go to Melanie's site to read it) and it includes the following:
"the Christian Arab population within the pre 1967 borders of Israel has grown from approximately 34,000 in 1948 to nearly 130,000 in 2005. Ironically this is the only part of the Middle East where the Christian population is growing."
Yet it's the Jews who - as usual - are criticized. Read the whole thing.

Update 5:00 PM

Soccer Dad has more about Christmas in Gaza.

Update 5:30 PM

J O S H U A P U N D I T has more about Christmas in Bethlehem.


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