There will be no Christmas display this year in the Biblical city of Bethlehem. Nearly all Christian festivities have been cancelled in the birthplace of Jesus which is overwhelmingly Muslim and under the control of the Palestinian Authority.
“Bethlehem Municipality crews announced the dismantling of Christmas decorations installed several years ago in the city’s neighbourhoods and removing all festive appearances in honour of the martyrs and in solidarity with our people in Gaza,” the city council wrote on its social media pages.The Christian Post notes that means for the first time since modern celebrations began, no Christmas trees or decorative lights will be on display in Bethlehem’s Manger Square.
A city spokesperson said the decision to dismantle the traditional nativity scene and other customary Christmas decorations was made in light of “the general situation in Palestine” and the ongoing Israel-Hamas war. “People are not really into any celebration. They are sad, angry and upset. Our people in Gaza are being massacred and killed in cold blood,” The Jerusalem Post quoted the spokesperson as saying.
The Christian Post reports a muted Christmas mass and prayer service will still be held in the Judean (West Bank) city of about 25,000 people roughly 10 kilometres south of Jerusalem. According to the UK’s Telegraph, the Christmas celebration in Bethlehem dates back at least as far as the early 20th century during British rule in the Palestine region.
The Church of the Nativity and Manger Square are two popular sites in the Holy Land where approximately one million pilgrims and foreign tourists come during the Christmas season. Israel’s war with Hamas has taken a huge toll on businesses that depend on Christian tourists, many of them in Bethlehem where locals heavily rely on religious tourism to sustain the local economy. Hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops are virtually empty with a significant number forced to close or lay off staff as they were still recovering from the loss of trade during the COVID pandemic.
Christian shop owner in Manger Square, Rony Tabash told Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need: “The situation is terrible. It’s not easy at all. Every day, new challenges arise. I’ve never experienced anything like this before. Never! It’s a war. Not like a war. It is a war. There are no pilgrims. Everything is empty, there’s no one. And they say it will last until Easter.”
Journalist Assaf Gibor reports that some Christians in Bethlehem and Jerusalem are “angry at the Palestinian Authority” over the decision to suspend most Christmas celebrations. Another journalist Catherine Salgado who contributes to PJ Media and other conservative outlets was scathing in her criticism:
“Imagine the outcry if Jerusalem or Rome had sent crews to Muslim neighborhoods before Ramadan to remove Islamic symbols! Even though Jews and Christians are the most persecuted religious groups and Islam is among the most intolerant of religions, don’t expect global backlash and outrage,” she commented.
“What makes this Christmas cancellation so particularly disturbing is that it is in honour of the ‘martyrs,’ which is Palestinian double-speak for ‘terrorists killed by Israelis,’ The heinous October 7 Hamas terrorist attack left hundreds of Israelis (and scores of foreign nationals) dead and forced Israeli authorities to come to grips with the reality that Arabs have been refusing peace in favour of trying to destroy Israel for decades, and they’re not going to change their minds now,” Ms. Sagrado continued.
Over the past 75 years, the Christian population of Bethlehem has plummeted. The National Catholic Reporter notes that in 1950 86% of city residents were Christians. Now it is less than 10%. Many Christians have fled overseas due to persecution and religious harassment. Low birth rates among Palestinian Christians have also contributed to the collapsing demographic.