A child dressed as Santa Claus lights a candle in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Christians in Israel and the PA began to celebrate Christmas on Wednesday, along with some 70,000 Christian visitors who have come for the festivities.
The foci of the celebrations are in Nazareth and Bethlehem, the hometown and birthplace, respectively, of Jesus.
On Wednesday, the traditional Christmas parade was staged in Nazareth, and at the conclusion there was a firework display, sponsored by the Tourism Ministry, to mark the opening of the Christmas celebrations.
Tens of thousands also to traveled to Bethlehem, along with Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad Twal, who was welcomed to the city by the Latin parish priest of Bethlehem and representatives of Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Beit Sahur.
The patriarch was scheduled to deliver the Midnight Mass in Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity.
Pastor Steven Khoury, the senior pastor of the Calvary Church in east Jerusalem and associate senior pastor at the First Baptist Church in Bethlehem, along with the Evangelical church, have been holding a series of celebrations and events in the lead-up to the holiday.
But the pastor says Christmas in Bethlehem has become increasingly commercial, and that the festival is promoted as a neutral celebration by the municipal authority in the city, a celebration that is devoid of the festival’s meaning.
“Bethlehem is becoming more commercialized, and focused on selling Santas and similar merchandise,” he said.
“The Palestinian government and the Bethlehem Municipality want to make Christmas applicable to everyone. But if you don’t believe in Jesus, then it’s not applicable,” he continued, explaining that the attempt to make it a nonreligious kind of celebration emptied the holiday of its meaning.
“It’s become more of a national festivity rather than a faith festivity, where people mark and celebrate Christmas by the external festivities, and the actual purpose of Christmas is being neglected and shoved aside,” Khoury said.
“We’re trying to put Christ back into Christmas, and whilst encouraging Christians to pray for the peace of the land and peace of the heart,” he said.
Khoury said Christians in the region are losing hope in the ability to live a stable life, particularly in the territory in Iraq and Syria controlled or threatened by Islamic State forces.
Although he said Christians are free to practice their religion in Bethlehem and the Palestinian territories, he said that Christian communities in the region are extremely concerned for their co-religionists in Iraq and Syria and also concerned about the spread of Islamic State radicalism and ideology.
“People are concerned about Christians in the broader region,” the pastor said. “The mentality and philosophy which some are acting upon exists in Arabs in Israel and Palestinian territories as well, and we’re praying that this kind of evil will be pushed out of people’s minds.”