x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

No Christmas in Gaza

The Gaza Strip is home to about 4,000 Palestinian Christians, many of whom will not be celebrating Christmas this year. Gaza Latin Church pastor Manuel Musalam cancelled midnight mass prayers in protest against Israel's siege of Gaza. In the shadow of Israel's security barrier, 40,000 pilgrims flocked to Bethlehem where Christian leaders called for peace. The Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, delivered a Christmas message to British television viewers.

The Gaza Strip is home to about 4,000 Palestinian Christians, many of whom will not be celebrating Christmas this year. Gaza Latin Church pastor Manuel Musalam said yesterday he was cancelling midnight mass prayers in protest against Israel's siege of Gaza. It was also a protest against the Israeli decision not to grant permission to Gaza Christians who sought permission to visit the holy city of Bethlehem, the Xinhua news agency reported. Thousands of pilgrims from around the world have flocked to the West Bank town of Bethlehem to celebrate Christmas, Al Jazeera said. The Palestinian ministry of tourism said it expected about 40,000 people to visit Bethlehem over the next week and the Palestinian Authority deployed hundreds of security forces in the area to safeguard the celebrations. "The Catholic leader in the Holy Land Thursday prayed for Mideast peace, telling the faithful at the traditional birthplace of Jesus the silent night of Christmas overpowers the voice of guns," AFP reported. "Peace to Bethlehem and all the inhabitants of the Holy Land," Latin Patriarch Fuad Twal said in his sermon at midnight mass in Bethlehem, just a few metres from the grotto that marks the spot where Christians believe their Prince of Peace was born in a stable. "On this night, the silence of the grotto will be even louder than the voice of the cannons and submachine guns,' he told pilgrims from around the world." In The Irish Times, Jack Kelly described the wall, Israel's security barrier, and the impact it has on those who it surrounds. "The wall almost completely circumscribes the small town of Bethlehem and it has a number of checkpoints, each with Israeli armed guards. It is impossible, for me at any rate, not to compare this situation with the Nazi's Warsaw Ghetto and second World War checkpoints. "As with the Jews in that terrible city of the early 1940s, the Palestinians are being treated like scum by the Israeli guards. Bethlehem resembles a ghetto where the local population is not permitted by the Israeli authorities to leave by the main roads. Illegal though it is by United Nations Charter and the International Bill of Human Rights, this is occupied territory, and it is a very hostile occupation." Meanwhile, in the UK viewers of Channel 4's "Alternative Christmas Message", an alternative to Queen Elizabeth's Christmas Day broadcast, were addressed by the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. "If Christ were on Earth today, undoubtedly He would fight against the tyrannical policies of prevailing global economic and political systems, as He did in His lifetime. The solution to today's problems is a return to the call of the divine Prophets. The solution to these crises is to follow the Prophets - they were sent by the Almighty for the good of humanity," Mr Ahmadinejad said. "Today, the general will of nations is calling for fundamental change. This is now taking place. Demands for change, demands for transformation, demands for a return to human values are fast becoming the foremost demands of the nations of the world. The response to these demands must be real and true. The prerequisite to this change is a change in goals, intentions and directions. If tyrannical goals are repackaged in an attractive and deceptive package and imposed on nations again, the people, awakened, will stand up against them." From the Vatican City, Reuters reported: "Pope Benedict led the world's 1.1 billion Roman Catholics into Christmas at a midnight mass Thursday in which he appealed for an end to child abuse in all its forms. He also called for peace in the Middle East, ahead of a possible trip to the region next year. Pope Benedict, celebrating the fourth Christmas of his pontificate, spoke out against the abuse of minors - ranging from parents who abandon their children to armed groups that recruit child soldiers. "Let us think of those street children who do not have the blessing of a family home," he said during the solemn mass at St. Peter's Basilica." In Dearborn, Michigan, Muslims will be attending Christmas services in an interfaith effort that began seven years ago. Eide Alawan, director of interfaith outreach at the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn said: "As Muslims, we share in the belief of Jesus. I know of no better way of connecting our communities than through the respect of our common belief in Essa," the Arabic word for Jesus, the Detroit Free Press reported. Newsday provided images of Christmas being celebrated around the world. In Time magazine, Amy Sullivan described how, for most Americans, Christmas Day is not a day for religious celebrations. "[H]owever they spend Christmas Day - 'the feast of Christmas' on the Christian liturgical calendar - one way most Americans don't celebrate it is by going to church. While demand for Christmas Eve celebrations is so high that some churches hold as many as five or six different services on Dec 24, most Protestant churches are closed on the actual religious holiday. For most Christians, Christmas is a day for family, not faith." "If that sounds like the triumph of culture over religion, it is. By the middle of the 20th century, Americans had embraced a civil religion that among other things elevated the ideal of family to a sacrosanct level. The Norman Rockwell image of family gathered around the tree became a Christmas icon that rivaled the baby Jesus. And Christmas Eve services - with their pageantry and familiar traditions - became just one part of the celebration, after the family dinner and before the opening of presents."

pwoodward@thenational.ae