In the heat of war, Christians in the Holy Land prepare to celebrate Christmas

In the heat of war, Christians in the Holy Land prepare to celebrate Christmas

In Jerusalem and Bethlehem, deserted by tourists, the holy places are empty, the shops closed. The massacre perpetrated on October 7 by Hamas and the massive response of the Jewish state in the Gaza Strip triggered unprecedented trauma in the region. In what state of mind will Christians, who represent less than 2% of the population, celebrate Christmas this year, a celebration of hope and joy?

The answer is not obvious, as their profiles are so diverse on this burning Holy Land. The faithful belong to thirteen different Churches and, in Israel, a large contingent of immigrants is added to Israeli Christians, most of the time Arab. If everyone hopes for peace, their concerns are obviously not the same.

“You escaped the rockets: be grateful!” In the Notre-Dame-Femme-de-Valeur church, housed on the ground floor of a building in a deprived area of ​​Tel-Aviv, the celebrant concludes a long homily dialogued in good humor with an assembly of Filipino women. Some come from the kibbutzim near the Gaza Strip, an hour or two away, where four Filipinos lost their lives in the Hamas attack. This Saturday, like the day before, explosions rang out in the sky of the large seaside city, where surfers and swimmers are still enjoying an endless summer. The mass ends with a prayer for the young volunteers who have gone to serve in the army. Filipinos, particularly appreciated in personal care services, form one of the largest communities of Christian migrants. They work hard, but hope to integrate: “80% of Jews are simply human, welcoming to different religions,” assures Fey, 50, very invested after thirty-two years of presence in the country.

The harsh condition of a migrant makes proximity of language, culture and religion vital. Especially in times of war. “Spiritual life is what interests me,” says Raoul, 51 years old. Everywhere he went, this Congolese, who arrived at the age of 28 and is now Israeli, brought together French-speaking African Christians for festive times of prayers, dances and feasts. But the future is dark. “No one knows how this will end between Israel and Hamas. When I see the children rushing into the shelter of our building to the sound of sirens, I think of this little girl who died of a heart attack during an alert “, he blurted out, lowering his voice.

At the discretion of the army

On the road from Taibeh to Bethlehem, nine kilometers south of Jerusalem, Israel’s occupation is visible everywhere. Here runs a secure lane between two concrete walls, reserved for Israeli security vehicles. There, near Ramallah, soldiers stopped a Palestinian, made him get out of the car and searched him. We come across a Patriot anti-missile vehicle. Travel by road is uncertain: the army opens or closes checkpoints and can block a passage at any time.

After two years of Covid, the war once again interrupted the flow of pilgrims and tourists who support many Christians. In Bethlehem, around the Basilica of the Nativity, the religious objects shops have lowered the curtain. “This window is a hundred years old,” Tony muses, his hand resting on a piece of furniture in the shop inherited from his father. I hope my son, Victor, can take it back. »

Brave the fear

The anguish of Arab, Israeli and Palestinian Christians is even greater. And secret. A Christian from Jaffa, in the southern suburbs of Tel Aviv, agrees to say a few words after initially refusing to speak: “It’s complicated. We are Arab and have family in the West Bank. We are scared. Christians believe that God gave this land for all to live in peace. Jesus taught us to love one another. But humanity is hurt. » Israeli Arabs, who represent 21% of the population, feel torn. This country which bombs their brothers and sisters is also the one which offers them social rights and the benefits of citizenship. In Taibeh, a village in the occupied West Bank, about thirty kilometers from Jerusalem, Palestinian solidarity is displayed at the heart of the Latin parish: in the nativity scene installed at the foot of the altar for the first Sunday of Advent , a keffiyeh, this black and white checkered scarf symbol of Palestinian nationalism, wraps the straw where the Child Jesus will be placed on Christmas Eve.

“One day, our society will be reborn, we hope,” comments the young priest, Abouna Bashar. The priest regrets the decision of Latin Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaballa, who asked parishes to limit celebrations inside churches and to renounce the usual festivities marking the preparation for Christmas as a sign of communion with the victims of the war. “It is not a good decision,” contests Father Abouna Bashar, “the market and the Christmas tree, the raffle, the big festival, the feast of Saint Barbara, these festivities maintain joy, and it is necessary to keep going in the war! Jesus is the center of the celebration, of our community life. » Jesus, of whom the Gospel of John (11, 54) reports that he passed through Taibeh, then called Ephraim, on the border of Judea and Samaria. Today, four settlements illegal under international law are encroaching on the land of Taibeh farmers, in the name of an ideology postulating the right of Jews to seize the land promised by God.

Waiting for the tourists

The war revives the nagging question of the presence of Christians in the Holy Land, and underlines their courage. “We take care of the holy places for you,” insists Tony, “we will not give up. But come on! » The ordeal is tough. By bringing the thumb and index finger of one hand together without them touching, he gives the measure of his hope: “We have a little bit left. It will come from there,” he adds, pointing to the entrance door to the Basilica of the Nativity. It is nicknamed the door of humility, it is so low.

“Our children want peace”

“This year, our children are not asking for gifts. They only want peace. We hear a lot of bombing. In the event of an alert, which is to say often, the school sends the children back to their families. Even inside our homes we feel unsafe and anxious. The news from Gaza saddens us a lot: this destruction, the thousands of deaths, the children, the people stranded without help… We do not know what the future will bring, so we live day by day, without making plans, by trusting God in everything. We will live this Christmas with our eyes turned more inward, waiting for the Child Jesus, hoping for a little light. »

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