Christmas season revives festive spirit in Bethlehem
In Bethlehem, the Christmas spirit means peace. Peace between Muslim and Christian neighbors
On Christmas Eve the Christmas spirit in Bethlehem was unforgettable. I am a Scot, born and bred. And much was familiar to me: the Christmas tree in Manger Square, the crowds heading towards the churches, even the Palestinian bagpipers celebrating the festival. But as I heard the call to prayer mingled with the carols, I was reminded that I was far from Glasgow. I was reminded that Christmas in Bethlehem has a very special spirit.
In Bethlehem, the Christmas spirit means neighborliness. As I walked around Bethlehem that night, I was struck by the number of Muslim families in the streets celebrating with their Christian neighbors, their kids wearing Santa hats. I attended church alongside Muslim and Christian leaders. I heard about how Christians give their Muslim friends gifts for Eid al-Adha. This acceptance of the other should be the norm; this should not be exceptional.
In Bethlehem, the Christmas spirit means peace. Peace between Muslim and Christian neighborsAlastair McPhail
In Bethlehem, the Christmas spirit means peace. Peace between Muslim and Christian neighbors. Peace amongst the many pilgrims of different nationalities, languages and cultures who flock to Bethlehem to celebrate Christmas. Peace in the midst of a region scarred by national, religious and sectarian strife. A peace which has no space for extremism and intolerance.
And in Bethlehem, the Christmas spirit means hope. As I left Bethlehem later that night and passed through the wall separating Bethlehem from Jerusalem, I was reminded of how fragile this hope of peace is. I speak every day to Palestinians who despair of achieving their own state at peace with Israel. I have witnessed increasing tensions in Jerusalem over the holy sites, of such importance to the three Abrahamic faiths. I hear daily news of conflict and brutality in Syria, Iraq and Libya. But Bethlehem at Christmas gives me room for hope. Hope that it is possible for neighbours of different religions and cultures to live together in harmony. Hope that it is possible to resolve conflict through dialogue and understanding. Hope that a durable peace is possible for Bethlehem, and for the region surrounding us, which lasts beyond Christmas.
From the holy land, from the city of Bethlehem, I wish you a very merry Christmas and a happy new year. I hope that you share in the Christmas spirit of Bethlehem.
Dr Alastair McPhail CMG OBE was appointed Her Majesty’s British Consul General to Jerusalem in January 2014. Dr McPhail has worked in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for 19 years. He was HM Ambassador to South Sudan from independence on 9 July 2011 until his departure in March 2013. Prior to becoming Ambassador to South Sudan he was HM Consul General in Juba from March 2011 until South Sudan became independent and the Consulate General was upgraded to a sovereign Embassy. From 1996-2000 he worked on the northern Iraqi Kurdish peace process. He worked on Sudan from 2000-2005, first as Head of the Egypt, Libya and Sudan Section in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, then as Head of the Sudan Unit – the UK’s international team charged with supporting the Sudan peace process – and finally as the UK Special Representative for Sudan. Dr McPhail attended every round of the negotiations on the Comprehensive Peace Agreement from the first session at Machakos to the final session at Naivasha. After that he took up overseas roles such as Minister and Deputy Head of Mission in the British Embassy in Rome, Italy and as the UK Special Envoy to Mali during a hostage crisis.
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