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Manger in rubble reminds world of suffering in Gaza at Christmas

15 December 2023

Celebrations in Holy Land to be limited, as show of solidarity

Al Jazeera

The rubble-strewn crib scene, with the Christ Child wrapped in a keffiyeh, in the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church, in Bethlehem

The rubble-strewn crib scene, with the Christ Child wrapped in a keffiyeh, in the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church, in Bethlehem

AN INFANT Christ swaddled in a keffiyeh and lying amid stones is the centrepiece of the crib scene at the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church, in Bethlehem, this year.

The pastor of the church, the Revd Munther Isaac, told The National: “We came with the idea of a manger in the rubble, and it’s inspired from the difficult images we see on a daily basis on our television screens of children being pulled from under the rubble in Gaza. . . We are tired of the world rationalising and justifying the killing of our children in Gaza. . .

“While the world celebrates Christmas with big festivities, in the homeland of Christmas, children are being killed, homes are being destroyed, and families displaced. We want to remind the world of the suffering of Palestinians, the injustice we go through, so it can hopefully challenge the world to work for peace.”

Last month, the Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in Jerusalem issued a call concerning the forthcoming season, encouraging congregations to “stand strong” with the victims of the conflict, “foregoing any unnecessarily festive activities” (News, 1 December).

In a pastoral Advent letter, the Primate of the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East, Dr Hosam Naoum, wrote: “Due to the current situation in our beloved Holy Land and the heartbreaking scenes that have shattered our hearts, we have decided this year to limit our celebrations to prayers, liturgies and carols within our churches.

“In a spirit of solidarity within the Body of Christ, I invite you to join us in this discipline by reflecting on the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ more than two thousand years ago, as well as on the conditions prevailing in the land at that time. They were no better than the circumstances here today. During the first Christmas, the Holy Family had difficulty finding a place for their son’s birth. There was the killing of children. There was military occupation. And there was the Holy Family becoming displaced as refugees.”

“We cannot celebrate when our brothers and sisters are dying,” the Greek Orthodox priest of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Fr Issa Thaljieh, told the Sunday Times this week. He spoke of an entire Greek Orthodox family from Gaza killed in an Israeli air strike, including a daughter born at Easter, for whom he had prayed.

AlamyFamilies and supporters of hostages still held by Hamas in Gaza, in a torchlit march to the Prime Minister’s Office, in Jerusalem on Tuesday

On Monday, Aid to the Church in Need reported that the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem had confirmed that “shrapnel from Israeli army strikes on nearby buildings destroyed water tanks and solar panels on the roofs of the Holy Family Church and associated parish buildings in Gaza City”.

The parish had also run out of fuel, depriving the community of electricity and any stable means of communication, the charity said.

This month, Mr Isaac was among a delegation of Palestinian Christian leaders who travelled to Washington, DC, with a letter that urged President Biden to push for a permanent ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas conflict. On Sunday, he wrote on social media that he had been asked what the response had been: “I answered that the response was the veto vote in the UN. They celebrate Christmas in their land, and wage war in our land.”

On Friday, the UN Security Council held an emergency meeting to discuss Gaza. It followed an urgent letter issued by the secretary-general, António Guterres, in which — in a step described by a spokesman as a “dramatic constitutional move” — he invoked Article 99 in the UN Charter, which states that the UN secretary-general “may bring to attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion, may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security”. The letter urged the Council to call for a humanitarian ceasefire.

The resolution — which called for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire, and the immediate and unconditional release of hostages and humanitarian access, but did not condemn the Hamas terrorist attacks of 7 October — was vetoed by the United States, while the UK abstained. The UK ambassador, Dame Barbara Woodward, said that “the sheer scale of civilians killed is shocking,” but warned that calling for a ceasefire “ignores the fact that Hamas has committed acts of terror and is still holding civilians hostage”.

The US Deputy Permanent Representative, Robert A. Wood, said that it was an “imbalanced resolution that was divorced from reality”, and that an unconditional ceasefire would leave Hamas able to attack again.

The Israeli ambassador, Gilad Erdan, said that calling for a ceasefire would send the message “that Hamas is forgiven for their deliberate atrocities, and Hamas’s oppression of Gazans is given a green light by the international community”. Hamas’s main weapon was terror, and it was seeking to “maximise civilian casualties” to put more and more pressure on Israel to relent, he argued.

On Wednesday, an IDF spokesperson, Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, said that the IDF had recovered the bodies of two hostages. “Hamas is holding our people hostage in brutal conditions while hiding among and under the people of Gaza,” he said.

Mr Guterres has warned of “severe risk of collapse of the humanitarian system” in Gaza. The Gazan health authorities report that about 18,000 people have now been killed since 7 October, about 70 per cent of whom were women and children. The head of UN emergency relief, Martin Griffiths, said last week: “We do not have a humanitarian operation in southern Gaza that can be called by that name any more”.

Last Saturday, the World Health Organization (WHO), and the Palestinian Red Crescent Society (PRCS), led a mission to deliver trauma and surgical supplies for 1500 patients to Al-Ahli, the Anglican hospital in northern Gaza, and to transfer 19 critical patients to care in south Gaza.

The WHO reported that a member of the PRCS had been “made to kneel at gunpoint and then taken out of sight, where he was reportedly harassed, beaten, stripped, and searched”. After his release later that night, he said that he had been “left to walk towards the south with his hands still tied behind his back, and without clothes or shoes”. On the return journey, one of the ambulances in the convoy was hit by bullets, while critical patients remaining in the ambulances were searched by armed soldiers, WHO reported.

On Monday, the diocese of Norwich reported that the Bishop of Norwich’s appeal for the Al-Ahli Hospital had exceeded £37,000.

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