Christians in Palestine
Palestinian Christians belong to one of the oldest Christian
communities in the world, and holy sites in the occupied West Bank and East
Jerusalem are known worldwide for their religious and symbolic importance. The
Church of the Nativity is one of those sites, located in Bethlehem in the
occupied West Bank, which according to the Bible is the birthplace of Jesus
Before 1948, Christians in Palestine made up about 18
percent of the total population of the Holy Land. As a result of the Nakba
and the continued occupation, however, the present day figures are much lower at
a mere 2 or 3 percent. Most Palestinian Christians that remain live in
Bethlehem and Ramallah in the West Bank. There are also about 1,300 Christians
living in Gaza.
Christmas in Palestine
Bethlehem has become the official home of Christmas
celebrations in the Holy Land where Christians and Muslims alike join together
for the lighting of the Christmas tree in Manger Square, outside the Church of
the Nativity, and watch the celebratory parades through town.
Christmas Day is actually marked three times in Bethlehem.
Leading up to 25 December, Catholics carry out prayers and songs, followed by a
procession on Christmas Eve that uses the traditional pilgrimage route from
Jerusalem to the Church of the Nativity. The Greek Orthodox, who make up the
majority of Christians in the occupied West Bank, then carry out their
celebrations on 7 January. This is followed by the Armenian parade, on 18
During each celebration, both Muslims and Christians welcome
the church patriarchs and priests in Manger Square. The crowds eat chocolate
and drink ‘sahlab’ (a hot drink made from a rare orchid) as they watch the
marching bands parade through the square.
Unlike many in Western countries who prefer turkey as their
traditional feast of choice on Christmas Day, Palestinian Christians will eat
Arabic salads, stuffed vine leaves, lamb stuffed with rice, cheese-stuffed
semolina pancakes and nougat sweets. Along with exchanging gifts and carol
singing, many will dress in their best attire on Christmas Day to enjoy the
The reality of the occupation
It is understandable, therefore, that Bethlehem and other
religious sites across the Holy Land attract a large number of Christians
wanting to join the Christmas festivities. However, for Palestinian Christians,
visiting Bethlehem’s holy sites is a daunting task.
Excluding temporary roadblocks, Bethlehem is surrounded by
over 30 physical barriers, as well as an eight-meter high barrier wall which
weaves through and around the city. Added to this are growing illegal Israeli
settlements surrounding the city.
Those living in the occupied West Bank are forced to take
long, mountainous routes and pass through numerous Israeli roadblocks to reach
the city. The barrier wall has also cut Bethlehem off from Jerusalem, so Palestinians
living in Jerusalem are forced to pass through humiliating Israeli checkpoints
to reach the city.
The result is that Palestinian Christians are denied their
right to freely worship, which is sadly only one part of the widespread
injustice that comes with living under a crippling occupation. All Palestinians
in the West Bank, irrespective of faith, continue to contend with a severe lack
of mobility, limited access to basic services, and high unemployment, as a
direct result of the occupation. In the occupied Gaza Strip, Israeli bombings
and the blockade on the free movement of goods and people cause intolerable
living conditions for everyone.
Despite their hardships, those in Palestinian Christian community
have kept their long-standing traditions and culture alive, especially during
Christmas time. Over the years, they have been asked to limit their Christmas
celebrations as a result of heightened tensions in the area. However, many feel
that allowing their Christmas traditions to thrive demonstrates their resilience
in the face of occupation. As one Palestinian wrote:
“If the birthplace of Jesus Christ does
not celebrate Christmas, who in the world will? I hope Palestine remains
full of lights every December. Our struggle is enduring, and this is why we
should preserve our joy.”