The renowned town credited as the epicenter of the nativity of Christ is anticipating a further departure of followers of Jesus. This follows the recent decision to abandon Christmas festivities and to take down holiday embellishments, as revealed by a former Catholic cleric to Fox News.
Officials in Bethlehem, the famed city in the West Bank that holds the honor of being the birthplace of Jesus, disclosed on November 14 that they decided to forgo the usual Christmas embellishments this year. They also announced that the traditional holiday festivities were suspended, in a gesture of unity with Gaza, given the current tumultuous conflict between Israel and Hamas.
Year-round Christmas decorations, a staple of the city, are also planned to be removed. This move, as they posted on their social media, is ‘in honor of the martyrs and in solidarity with our people in Gaza’. The decisions have led to a profound impact on the local economy and culture, much of which heavily relies on the spirit of the festive season.
This removal of festive adornments, along with the hiatus of the celebrations, has dealt a significant blow to the tourism industry, a pivotal source of Bethlehem’s income. As per The Jerusalem Post, the tourism cash influx contributes to approximately 90% of Bethlehem’s revenue.
A representative of the Bethlehem city council indicated to The Telegraph in November that embracing Christmas, in these circumstances, would seem incongruous. The backdrop for this unusual move traces directly to the escalating conflict between Israel and Hamas.
The Israeli government proclaimed war on Hamas, following an onslaught of rockets flung from Gaza and simultaneous invasions into Israel. This offensive led to tragic losses, with over 1,200 Israeli citizens, including military-personnel, women, children, and the elderly, falling victim to these attacks and taken captive.
The Hamas-controlled Gaza Health Ministry has reported that as a response to these assaults, a staggering 13,300 individuals, including Palestinian civilians and Hamas combatants, have lost their lives. The blame for this, however, weighs heavily on Hamas, with critics blaming them for perpetuating fear and chaos in the region since attaining power in 2007, causing hardships for both Israelis and Palestinians.
Hamas, along with other extremist factions, faced allegations of engaging in brutal acts of terrorism during an assault on October 7, with shocking reports of violating women and executing civilians by beheading. Their reign has not only caused hardships for Israelis and Palestinians but has also led to a discernible increase in religious persecution against Christians worldwide.
A report published by the International Christian Concern on November 1 details the growing incidences of harassment targeting Christians around the globe. The report suggests that activities of Hamas and similar extremist groups exacerbate the risk of Christians facing persecution.
Commenting on the current state of affairs, Morris lamented that, in a city sacred to both faiths, neither Jews nor Christians presently feel welcome. The consequences of these tightening tensions and prevalent hostility are seen clearly in the dwindling Christian population.
Following the end of World War II, there has been a notable decrease in Christian residents in Gaza. This downward spiral in numbers has further accentuated after Hamas assumed power, seeing a drastic fall of nearly 60% between 2007 and 2022, down to approximately 1,300 residents as per information from the University of Notre Dame.
This declining Christian minority in Gaza and Bethlehem might have far-reaching effects on the cultural fabric of the region, given their significant historical and symbolic links with these areas. The decision to cancel Christmas festivities and remove decorations this year reflects the mounting challenges faced by these minority communities in practicing their faith openly.
The socio-political tensions surrounding these communities not only affect their religious practices but also deeply impact the region’s economy. Tourism, being a significant economic pillar for Bethlehem, is hitting a substantial loss due to the escalating conflict and accompanying restrictions on celebrations.
Some precedents may need to be revisited, and innovative solutions brought forward, to restore a sense of security and peace among these historic communities. With broad international implications, efforts to negotiate peace and stability become not just a regional, but a global concern.
Unfortunately, the Bethlehem Municipality has made no comment regarding the recent decisions or the ongoing situation, leaving many questions unanswered and the future uncertain.