In pictures: Global Christmas celebrations kick off in shadow of war

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Pope Francis has kicked off global Christmas celebrations with a call for peace, as Israel’s war on Hamas and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine cast a shadow over one of the world’s favorite holidays.

Having said earlier in the day that he was thinking of people “who are suffering from war -- we are thinking of Palestine, of Israel, of Ukraine,” Pope Francis struck a somber tone during his Christmas Eve mass.

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“Tonight, our hearts are in Bethlehem, where the Prince of Peace is once more rejected by the futile logic of war, by the clash of arms that even today prevents him from finding room in the world,” the Pope said.

Pope Francis presides the Christmas Eve mass at St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican on December 24, 2023. (AFP)
Pope Francis presides the Christmas Eve mass at St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican on December 24, 2023. (AFP)



The biblical city in the occupied West Bank, where Christians believe Jesus Christ was born in a stable more than 2,000 years ago, effectively canceled the annual Christmas celebrations that normally draw thousands of tourists.

The town did away with its giant Christmas tree, marching bands and flamboyant nativity scene this year, settling for just a few festive lights.

Palestinian youth members of the scouting movement hold up banners condemning and calling for an end of the conflict in the Gaza Strip between Israel and the Palestinian militant Hamas movement during a procession welcoming the arrival of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem for Christmas Eve celebrations (according to Western tradition) in the biblical city of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank on December 24, 2023. (AFP)
Palestinian youth members of the scouting movement hold up banners condemning and calling for an end of the conflict in the Gaza Strip between Israel and the Palestinian militant Hamas movement during a procession welcoming the arrival of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem for Christmas Eve celebrations (according to Western tradition) in the biblical city of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank on December 24, 2023. (AFP)



In the center of the town, a huge Palestinian flag had been unfolded with a banner declaring that “The bells of Bethlehem ring for a ceasefire in Gaza.”

“A lot of people are dying for this land,” said Nicole Najjar, an 18-year-old student.

“It’s really hard to celebrate while our people are dying.”

The Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, said: “We are here to pray and to ask not only for a ceasefire, a ceasefire is not enough, we have to stop these hostilities and to turn the page because violence generates only violence.”

Sister Nabila Salah from the Catholic Holy Church in Gaza -- where two Christian women were killed by an Israeli sniper earlier this month, according to the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem -- told AFP “all Christmas celebrations have been canceled.”

“How do we celebrate when we are... hearing the sound of tanks and bombardment instead of the ringing of bells?” she said.

In Syria, churches limited celebrations to prayers in solidarity with the Palestinians.

Syrians walk past Christmas decorations at a market in the capital Damascus on December 23, 2023. (AFP)
Syrians walk past Christmas decorations at a market in the capital Damascus on December 23, 2023. (AFP)



The Hamas attack on October 7 left around 1,140 people dead in Israel, most of them civilians, according to an AFP tally based on the latest official Israeli figures.

The Palestinian militants also abducted around 250 people, 129 of whom Israel says remain in Gaza.

Israel retaliated with a sustained bombardment and ground invasion of Gaza, where 20,424 people have been killed, mostly women and children, according to the latest toll from the territory’s Hamas-run health ministry.

New Christmas Day


Ukraine, invaded by Russia nearly two years ago, is celebrating Christmas on December 25 for the first time, jettisoning the traditional Orthodox date of January 7, which is feted in Russia, as a snub to Moscow.

In the southern Black Sea port of Odesa, churchgoers prayed and lit candles as priests in gold vestments held a Christmas Eve service in the Cathedral of the Nativity, decorated with fir trees and a nativity scene.

A woman lights a candle during an Orthodox Christmas service mass at the Saint John the Theologian Church in Kharkiv on December 24, 2023, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (AFP)
A woman lights a candle during an Orthodox Christmas service mass at the Saint John the Theologian Church in Kharkiv on December 24, 2023, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (AFP)



“We believe that we really should celebrate Christmas with the whole world, far away, far away from Moscow.

For me that’s the new message now,” said one smiling parishioner, Olena, whose son is a medic on the front line.

The date change -- moving away from the Julian calendar favored by the Orthodox Church -- is part of moves since the invasion to remove traces of the Russian and Soviet empires.

Surfing Santas


In countries not afflicted by war, festive revellers donned Santa hats for a shot of holiday cheer -- running a city race in Skopje, North Macedonia; surfing the waves in Florida; jogging along muddy wooded paths on the outskirts of Paris; dipping in the sea near the British port of Dover; or soaking with a drink in hand in Lake Geneva.

In Sydney, Australia, where the big day had already arrived, many residents and tourists headed to the beach, wearing the woolly red hats despite the heat in the Southern Hemisphere’s summer.

A surfer dressed as Santa gets out of the water after riding waves during the 15th annual “Surfing Santas” event in Cocoa Beach, Florida, on December 24, 2023. (AFP)
A surfer dressed as Santa gets out of the water after riding waves during the 15th annual “Surfing Santas” event in Cocoa Beach, Florida, on December 24, 2023. (AFP)



And children around the globe followed Santa, his reindeer and their present-laden sleigh with the help of Norad Tracks Santa, a 3-D interactive website run annually by a joint US-Canadian military monitoring agency.

Prayers in Turkey

Worshippers sing Christmas carols during a Christmas Mass at the Saint Mary Draperis Roman Catholic Church at the Beyoglu district of Istanbul on December 24, 2023. (AFP)
Worshippers sing Christmas carols during a Christmas Mass at the Saint Mary Draperis Roman Catholic Church at the Beyoglu district of Istanbul on December 24, 2023. (AFP)



In southern Turkey, much of which was devastated by an earthquake in February, some faithful celebrated mass in front of the ruins of their church at Antakya.

“It’s important for us to celebrate the birth of Jesus, but it’s a very sad Christmas,” said Vehbi Tadrasgil, a 55-year-old who lost his wife and two of his three children in the quake that killed at least 50,000 people in Turkey and more than 5,000 in neighbouring Syria.

“I hope that their souls are here, I am certain that our prayers rise to them,” he said.

Twenty kilometers (12 miles) down the coast in Samandag, a generator powered the lights on a tree in front of the Saint-Ilyas church, which survived.

A man adjusts a painting depicting Jesus Christ in the garden of the Antioch Greek Orthodox Church, which was totally damaged during an earthquake on February 6, 2023, as they prepare for a Christmas mass, in Hatay, on December 24, 2023. (Photo by BULENT KILIC / AFP)
A man adjusts a painting depicting Jesus Christ in the garden of the Antioch Greek Orthodox Church, which was totally damaged during an earthquake on February 6, 2023, as they prepare for a Christmas mass, in Hatay, on December 24, 2023. (Photo by BULENT KILIC / AFP)



“After the earthquake, our community -- 400 families -- was annihilated. With this Christmas, we want to wish everyone rebirth, love, joy and peace. We must move forward, rebuild a new life,” said Father Yumurta.

“They say that with the birth of the child Jesus, a new life begins, a new beginning. For us too, here, it will be a new beginning,” he said.

Read more:

Palestinians feel ‘no joy’ as Israeli bombs claim more lives in Gaza on Christmas

Ukrainians move Christmas to December 25 to be ‘far from Moscow’

Gaza war overshadows Christmas celebrations in Palestine as Biden urges caution

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