In the face of adversity, Holy Land Christians unite for Christmas

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Threatened with extinction and political conflict, Christians in the Holy Land are using Christmas as an opportunity to promote unity among their different denominations

With Christians now less than two percent of the population in Israel and the West Bank, demographic numbers are at an unprecedented low. Amid crisis, the local churches focus on fostering inter-Christian unity in their holiday celebrations.

Saher Kawas, a Palestinian Christian from Bethlehem, told Al Arabiya English one of the most anticipated events of the season is the interdenominational procession in Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus.

“This Christmas procession gathers Christians from all denominations. It is a testimony that in spite of all of the denominational differences and disputes, Christ always unites them and reminds them that they are Christians first,” said Kawas, who works at the Roman Catholic diocese in Jerusalem.

Loubna Tams, a Roman Catholic born and raised in Jerusalem, said the local celebrations keep the “true Christmas tradition alive” and that it is a privilege to be part of the native Christian community “that is sadly getting smaller every year.”

“We are getting closer to each other and there is a real willingness from everyone to show solidarity and to keep our history and our identity anchored in this land for a long time to come,” said Tams.

Mass Exodus

The majority of the Christian community are indigenous Palestinian Arabs that have inhabited the Holy Land for centuries, with some claiming descent from the early Christian church. But now the community is suffering from mass exodus.

In 1914, Christians made up 10 percent of the population in Palestine. A century later, by 2014, Palestinian Christians had shrunk to less than two percent of the population in Israel and the West Bank and Gaza.

The main reasons for modern Palestinian Christian emigration include multiple wars, ongoing political instability, economic hardship, religious radicalization among Muslim and Jewish groups, and Palestinians becoming refugees after the formation of the state of Israel in 1948, according to Dr. Salim Munayer, a Palestinian Christian who founded Musalaha, a non-profit organization that promotes reconcilation between Palestinians and Israelis.

Munayer said unity among Palestinian Christians is vital in facing challenges like the decrease in population and military occupation by the Israeli government, which includes a separation barrier around Bethlehem.

“Building of the wall cut off Christians in Bethlehem from Christians in Jerusalem. This has major consequences on Christian churches and institutions, family relationships, and the ability to participate in religious ceremonies” said Munayer.

Christmas events in Bethlehem aim to ameliorate this physical divide, bringing together worshippers of all denominations from around the Holy Land.

Munayer said the continuing presence of Christians in Bethlehem and their Christmas celebrations give “universal testimony” to the historical truth of the events in the life of Christ, including the birth in Bethlehem.

“In spite of two thousand years of persecution, wars, economic unrest and other challenges there is still a vibrant Christian community in Bethlehem,” he said.

Lyn Elias, one of the estimated 11,000 Christians living in Bethlehem, said celebrating Christmas in the Holy Land is a “true blessing” regardless of limitations and challenges faced by the religious minority group.

“We have a mission to reflect our faith by living fully in this oppressed land. I think being here gives hope to the rest of the world,” said Elias in an interview.