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In solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza, Bethlehem skips Christmas festivities

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

To get a sense of how Palestinian Christians are dealing with the Israel-Gaza conflict, I've been staying in touch with Reverend Munther Isaac in Bethlehem and Tamar Haddad in Jerusalem. Early in the fighting, Christians in the West Bank made the difficult decision to call off this year's Christmas festivities in Bethlehem. They made this decision out of solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza. Here's how Reverend Munther described preparations when I spoke with him last month.

MUNTHER ISAAC: No lights. No decorations. No one is in a mood to celebrate.

KHALID: Last week, I checked back in with the two leaders. Here's Reverend Munther again.

ISAAC: It's a season of prayer. It's a season of prayer and a season of lament. The celebrations are cancelled, but the meaning of Christmas - it's still there. It's still real for us and maybe more real than any other year 'cause the story of Christmas resonates more with us in a profound way, particularly the fact that Jesus himself was a refugee. He escaped a massacre when he was born.

As I told my congregation, we need to, you know, look at the true meaning of Christmas apart from the decorations and the lights and the celebrations. The true meaning of Christmas is God's solidarity with us and our pain - you know, as in how Jesus was born among the occupied and the marginalized. So we're praying. We're sending messages to our people of comfort and hope but without the normal festivities.

KHALID: You mentioned no decorations, but I do know that there is a nativity scene there that is symbolic this year.

ISAAC: Yes. In our church, we created a nativity manger made from rubble that we brought from the neighborhood resembling a bombed house. And we placed Jesus in the middle with the Holy Family, the Magis, the shepherds surrounding that piece of rubble and looking for baby Jesus. The message is, if Jesus were born today, he would be born in Gaza under the rubble. It's a shocking message to many, but it actually - it explains the true meaning of Christmas, the presence of God with us in our pain and suffering.

KHALID: And, Tamar, what about you? How are you marking Christmas this year?

TAMAR HADDAD: This year - honestly, it just does not feel like Christmas. It just does not feel celebratory at all. I like the idea of what Pastor Munther said about prayers because it really is focused about prayers right now.

KHALID: When we last spoke, the two of you had just come to Washington. You were meeting with officials at the White House and on Capitol Hill, hoping to persuade them to support a cease-fire. That cease-fire has, of course, not happened. How do you both feel about the meetings you had and what's transpired since then?

HADDAD: I'm going to be honest. After we did the meetings first week, and we were there during the humanitarian pause - and right after that, the fire commences, and then we see the number of death increase once again - so we felt like we did nothing. However, with advocacy, you plant seeds, and then you see them grow later. And I know a few of the Democrats we talked to are against what Israel is doing now whereas back then they weren't, so we are seeing small changes every day, and it gives us hope.

KHALID: And what about you, Pastor Munther?

ISAAC: At the end of the day, the war is still happening. And in fact, while at the White House, I remember they told us for sure, we are against targeting civilians, and we're aware of the presence of Christians in the church and so on. But the bigger picture - it feels like no one's listening. It's really heartbreaking because of, as I said, the children who die every day. Every 15 minutes, a child is killed. We were hoping, maybe in our naivety, that by Christmas, the war would be over, and sadly, it doesn't look like it.

KHALID: Some days ago, a mother and a daughter were shot dead as they were walking the grounds of Gaza's only Catholic church. They were members of Gaza's very tiny community of Christians. And I wonder, Pastor, how worried are you about the future of the Christian community there? Do you think it will survive the war?

ISAAC: We're really afraid that they will not survive it. I received a text message just this morning from a friend within - who is in the Catholic Church who said, we haven't left a building in five days now. So they feel even besieged within the church buildings. So right now, our focus is, will they survive? And most likely, this war will bring an end to the Christian presence in Gaza, as those people will most certainly try to find any possible life in any other place after living through this trauma. So we're really concerned.

KHALID: Have either of you been able to sit down with political leaders in Israel since this war has started to discuss the situation in Gaza - any of your concerns about the Palestinian Christian community?

ISAAC: No. I mean, I live in Bethlehem. I can't even go to Jerusalem right now. I don't have a permit to go to Jerusalem. I had one, and it was revoked. Clearly, Israel is not entertaining the idea of listening to us or talking to us or to Christian leaders.

HADDAD: It's interesting because we can come to the States and share what is happening and call for a cease-fire. But to be honest with you, it's not something you do back home. Like, yes, they say it is a democracy, but we really - you can't even think of going and talking to Israeli officials. It's not going to - like, it's not an option, even.

KHALID: You both are describing a situation of such devastation. I wonder if there's anything that gives you hope in this moment.

HADDAD: Wow. This is a tough question (laughter). I mean, seeing what is going on - we want to see hope, and we try to see it in the smallest things. I think that's how Palestinians are so resilient - is that they find hope even when it's very hard to see. And we're like, even if it's small, it is something. We know our cause is something to fight for. Our living and our being is a form of our resistance, and we keep doing it. But it's very, very hard at the moment, if I'm fully honest with you.

ISAAC: Yeah. It's hard. It's really dark. But I think the biggest source of our hope right now is our faith in God. The Palestinian society, including, of course, Palestinian Christians, are very resilient in their faith and surrender to God. I mean, even you see the words of the people in Gaza who survive a bombing and then carry dead bodies and say, we trust God.

They can't take away our faith in God, and this is, right now, our source of hope. Christmas brings us hope in the birth of a son who survived, a child who survived a massacre, and then went on to, in our Christian faith, do really amazing things to the world. So I look at the story of Jesus himself, and I find hope.

KHALID: Munther Isaac and Tamar Haddad, thank you both so much for taking the time to speak with us.

HADDAD: Thank you.

ISAAC: You're welcome. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROB BURGER'S "ALTERNATE STAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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