Birthplace of Jesus celebrates His Birth amid heightened tensions
By Dan Wooding, Founder of ASSIST News Service
BETHLEHEM, WEST BANK (ANS – December 25, 2017) — Christian pilgrims from around the world have attended a Christmas Eve Mass at Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, built on the site where Jesus Christ is believed to have been born by Christians around the world.
According to the BBC, fewer people than usual were in the West Bank town because of increased tensions between Palestinians and the Israeli (IDF) army since U.S. President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
During the Mass attended by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Apostolic Administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, said: “Jerusalem is a city of peace, there is not peace if someone is excluded.”
Palestinian boy and girl scouts kicked off Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem on Sunday (Christmas Eve) with a colorful march through Manger Square. Playing drums and bagpipes, they paraded past a giant Christmas tree outside the ancient Church of the Nativity.
Bethlehem’s mayor, Anton Salman, a Roman Catholic, said celebrations were toned down because of anger over Trump’s decision.
“We decided to limit the Christmas celebrations to the religious rituals as an expression of rejection and anger and sympathy with the victims who fell in the recent protests,” he said.
Accompanying the decorations in Manger Square, was a large banner protesting Trump’s Jerusalem declaration. Next to the square was a poster that read “Manger Square appeal” and “#handsoffjerusalem.”
“We want to show the people that we are people who deserve life, deserve our freedom, deserve our independence, deserve Jerusalem as our capital,” he said.
Voice of America said that ironically, Bethlehem today has a strong Muslim majority of at least 70 percent, with only 30 percent Christians. But the mayor noted that the Palestinians are one people, and Jerusalem is sacred to Palestinian Christians and Muslims alike.
“Trump’s decision has sparked violent Palestinian protests in Bethlehem and other parts of the West Bank, scaring many pilgrims away,” added Voice of America. “Salman played down the scope of the unrest, insisting that Bethlehem is not dangerous. Security was tight in the city as paramilitary Palestinian police armed with assault rifles patrolled the cobblestone streets.”
Michael Valentine, who came from Brooklyn, New York, said, “Both the Palestinians and Israelis are making sure that tourists feel safe here.”
Still, many tourists cancelled plans to visit Bethlehem due to the unrest and turnout at the Christmas celebrations was sparse.
Café owner Hader Kanaan said customers are few and far between. “This Christmas this year is very sad,” he lamented. “No celebration. Nobody [is] happy. [It’s a] bad situation. Everything [is] bad.”
Nevertheless, those who made the Christmas journey to the Grotto of the Nativity were glad they came.
“I consider it a favor from God because this is the place that I can touch and sense in my spirit that really Christ was born in Bethlehem,” said Sarah Dauda, a pilgrim from Nigeria, the land of my birth. “I have heard about it since childhood but now I can see and touch. Hallelujah, blessed be the name of the Lord.”
Voice of America concluded by saying, “For pilgrims, visiting Jesus’ birthplace on Christmas is an experience of faith. But for Palestinians, Christmas is a gloomy reminder that Bethlehem’s message of peace on Earth has not been fulfilled 2,000 years on.”
Meanwhile, in Vatican City on Christmas Eve, Pope Benedict XVI called for prayer for “all who live and suffer in all the places where Christ lived,” naming the Israelis and Palestinians, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria.
He acknowledged that in history, people acting as if “God were their private property” have been violent, arrogant and intolerant in God’s name, but religion is not at fault for violence in this world.
“It is not true that denial of God would lead to peace. If God’s light is extinguished, then human dignity is extinguished,” he said. The birth of the Christ child introduces God’s word to the world. “Christ is our peace and he proclaimed peace…”
Two hours later, the pope gave his final benediction and, accompanied by a contingent of children bearing flowers, moved to a side altar where the figure of the Christ child was placed in a creche. A shy smile lit his face as he rode the platform back down the aisle.
Shortly before the Christmas Eve Mass, the Vatican released the theme of the message Pope Benedict for the World Day of Peace: “Blessed are the peacemakers.”
Earlier in the afternoon, Benedict ushered in the start of the Christmas Eve celebrations by witnessing the ceremonial opening of the creche in the square and lighting a Christmas candle in the window of his apartment.
According to USA Today, “An assistant held the match and steadied the glass-enclosed candle and then the pope blessed the crowd below, which had gathered for the unveiling of a Nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square.
“Christmas season is an exhausting run for the 85-year-old Benedict — the sixth-oldest pope since the 15th century.”
He had a few hours for a family dinner with his brother, the Rev. Georg Ratzinger, at the papal apartments before the evening Mass, according to Reuters.
Christmas Day is his annual blessing Urbi et Orbi, (to the city and the world) and his Christmas message. On New Year’s Eve there are prayers to thank God for his goodness in the passing year.
Then New Year’s Day he celebrates a special Mass and offers a prayer for world peace. That’s when a global audience tunes in to the Vatican to see him lead the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics in prayer and celebration.
Photo captions: 1) Worshippers pray inside the Church of the Nativity during Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem on Dec. 24, 2017. (Ammar Awad/Reuters) 2) Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa (C), Apostolic Administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, poses in a group picture with Palestinian women and girls dressed in traditional clothing at the Manger Square outside the Church of the Nativity on December 24, 2017. (Musa Al Shaer, AFP). 3) Boy and Girl Scouts on their traditional bagpipes and drums march by the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. 4) Pope Benedict XVI urges prayer for the peace of Jerusalem and the Holy Land from the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica. (Photo: BBC screenshot). 5) Cover of Dan Wooding’s latest novel – about Mary, the mother of Jesus. 6) Dan Wooding outside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
About the writer: Dan Wooding, 77, is an award-winning journalist who was born in Nigeria of British missionary parents, both from Liverpool, and is now living in Southern California with his wife Norma, to whom he has been married for more than 54 years. They have two sons, Andrew and Peter, and six grandchildren who all live in the UK. Dan is the founder of the ASSIST News Service (ANS) and hosts a weekly radio show and two TV shows, all based in in Southern California. Dan is also the author of numerous books, including his autobiography, From Tabloid to Truth, and his latest novel, Mary, My Story from Bethlehem to Calvary. (http://marythebook.com/), which tells the story of Jesus through the eyes of his beloved mother, Mary. Dan Wooding has frequently reported for ANS from both Israel and the West Bank, including Bethlehem.
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