A Syrian man cycles past a Christmas tree being decorated in the Christian-majority neighbourhood of Hamidiyeh in the old city of Homs.
(photo credit: YOUSSEF KARWASHAN / AFP)
Christians in the Middle East are again celebrating Christmas this year amid bloodshed, a scenario they have become accustomed to as they try to make the best a bad situation. But in Iraq, Syria and the Palestinian territories, among other places, the holiday offers little escape from the pain and sorrow which has come to define this region.
In Bethlehem, where scripture says Jesus was born, Christmas celebrations have been downgraded, if not entirely politicized; this, after Palestinians embarked on "days of rage" in the wake of the US President Donald Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital. So too in Ramallah have public Christmas trees had their lights turned off in solidarity with those who have been killed in the ensuing clashes with Israeli security forces.
A senior Palestinian official contended to The Media Line that the White House's decision proves that Washington does not care about Christians in the region. "We are part of the Palestinian community but Trump's move legitimizes Bethlehem's separation from Jerusalem."
The exception in the West Bank is the recently-constructed city of Rawabi, where the Palestinian Authority backtracked on a previous decision and went ahead with lighting a tree in the public square of an outdoor mall.
Iraqi Christians in Bartella celebrate Christmas after their town was freed from ISIS, December 2016 (credit: Reuters)
Otherwise, the disappoint has likewise extended into Israel, with the mayor of the predominantly Arab city of Nazareth having cancelled Christmas activities, citing the fact that President Trump's decision had "taken away the joy of the holiday."
Christians in Bethlehem expressed their disappointment
to The Media Line over the sorry state of affairs. "They stole our happiness," one teenager said in reference to the American move. "People were excited and preparing and all of a sudden their plans are finished." Another resident painted a grim picture of the city, explaining that "this time of the year, every store in Bethlehem would normally have lights, Christmas songs and holiday cheer but there is nothing."
One husband and wife vowed to nevertheless spread some Christmas spirit buying their children gifts and arranging gatherings in their home.
Palestinians stressed that businesses have been hit hard this Christmas season. The award-winning Jacir Palace Hotel in Bethlehem, for example, had to close down for a week because of violent protests in the city. Ironically, some of the demonstrators were dressed as Santa Claus.
In Syria, the situation is abysmal, as the war which has killed about 500,000 people and displaced millions more will soon enter its eighth year. In the capital Damascus, people are doing their utmost to block out the carnage by erecting a massive Christmas tree in the city center decorated with golden ornaments.
"We feel like tomorrow might not come," one Syrian woman told The Media Line, "therefore, we over-celebrate Christmas by praying more and enjoying every single moment as if it were the last."
In Aleppo, there remains a large Christian community, which also put up a large tree and decorated streets and gardens with lights. One Syrian refugee from Aleppo who is currently living in Abu Dhabi described the situation in his former home as relatively stable. "The Russian forces are in control of the city, whereas fighters from the Syrian opposition maintain land on the outskirts. But a truce has been signed so the fighting is less."
He confirmed to The Media Line that people in Aleppo will also celebrate New Year's.
In neighboring Iraq, the Chaldean Church in Kirkuk is marking Christmas by hosting more than six hundred youths, including many refugees from different parts of the country. Yousif Toma, the archbishop of Kirkuk, told The Media Line that the church has an open-door policy. "Any person in need is a guest of god, we do not categorize people based on religion, and god's guests are our guests."
Smarnad Yas, head of the Chaldean Association explained that "most of the refugees take shelter in camps that the United Nations prepared in Kurdistan [a semi-autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq]. Yas reiterated to The Media Line that those refugees that cannot make it to Europe are welcome to take part in this year's "simple" Christmas celebration at the church, despite the ongoing instability.
In Egypt, security has been ramped up as Christians have been regularly targeted over the past twelve months, including by the Islamic State. Earlier this year, a video went viral of ISIS beheading a group of Egyptian Christians (a similar film was taken of Christians being executed in Libya). In May, gunmen dressed as security forces stopped a bus filled with Christian pilgrims in western Egypt and forced them to read the Shahada—the Islamic declaration of faith. When they refused, twenty-eight Christians were shot dead.
Pope Francis has previously urged countries to stop the “genocide” being perpetrated against Christians in the region. “Today we are dismayed to see how in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world many of our brothers and sisters are persecuted, tortured and killed for their faith in Jesus," he asserted. “In this third world war, waged piecemeal, which we are now experiencing, a form of genocide is taking place, and it must end."