By Dan Wooding, Founder of the ASSIST News Service
BETHLEHEM, WEST BANK (ANS – Dec. 24, 2015) – Thousands of pilgrims began celebrating Christmas on Thursday (December 24, 2015) in the birthplace of Jesus, but festivities were subdued against a backdrop of violence in the Holy Land and a growing jihadist threat across the Middle East.
According to Sarah Benhaida of AFP, in other parts of the Middle East, and in the world beyond, Christians were fearful for their future, and some even prohibited from celebrating the holy day.
“In Bethlehem, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in the Holy Land arrived ahead of the traditional midnight mass at the Church of the Nativity, built over the site where Christians believe Jesus was born,” she said.
Travelling from Jerusalem nearby, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, Jordanian Fouad Twal, had to pass through the Israeli wall that separates the two cities, with Bethlehem located in the occupied West Bank.
“A wave of violence has led to a sharp decline in pilgrims visiting Bethlehem and the rest of the Holy Land this year, and only a sparse crowd was on hand to welcome Twal’s procession,” said Benhaida.
Violent protests and a wave of Palestinian attacks on Israelis since October have killed 129 Palestinians, 19 Israelis, an American and an Eritrean.
“Many of the Palestinians have been attackers, while others have been shot dead by Israeli security forces during clashes,” she wrote.
“Three more were shot dead in the West Bank, and another killed during clashes with Israeli forces at a refugee camp in the West Bank on Thursday.”
Still, she continued, pilgrims who were at Manger Square in the heart of Bethlehem were proud to have made the trip.
It was “important to be here, to react and send a message of peace for Christmas,” said an Italian nun, Sister Donatella, as she walked among a procession of pipers and drummers.
Linaras Oceani, a Christian Indonesian taking selfies, said she was not deterred by travel warnings from back home.
“God is with me, so all will be well,” said the young woman, wearing sunglasses and a fur coat. She called herself “privileged, because not everyone has the opportunity to come here”.
Mass dedicated to victims
The mass commemorating the birth of Jesus is dedicated to victims of violence and their families, Twal said, with celebrations “moderate” due to violence in the Palestinian territories, Israel and the world.
In his Christmas message earlier this month, Twal said “a deadly ideology based on religious fanaticism and obstinacy is spreading terror and barbarism amidst innocent people”.
Twal had also called for parishes to switch off Christmas tree lights for five minutes in solidarity with victims of violence and terrorism. Lights on trees in Manger Square were shut off for a few minutes at 7 pm.
The mass was attended by religious leaders and dignitaries, including Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.
At the Vatican, Pope Francis celebrated mass at St Peter’s Basilica.
In a recent sermon, he said: “Christmas is approaching… it’s all a charade. The world continues to go to war.”
His concerns were playing out in countries including Libya and Syria, where Christians have been threatened by the advance of Islamic State (IS) group.
In Iraq, the mood was somber, as the dwindling Christian community trickled in to churches.
“We are praying for the restoration of peace and security and the return of the displaced to their land,” said Farida, as she arrived at Our Lady of Salvation church in Baghdad.
She said 12 of her relatives lost their homes when IS took over Iraq’s second city Mosul in 2014 and ordered Christians to convert to Islam, pay a heavy tax as second-class citizens or face death.
The AFP reporter said that in Somalia, the government has banned celebrations of Christmas and New Year in the Muslim majority country, saying the festivities might attract Islamist attacks.
The same has happened in oil-rich Brunei, where the oil-rich country’s authorities have threatened five-year jail sentences for those who violate a ban imposed on “open and excessive” celebrations.
“And in the troubled nearby southern Philippines, seven Christian farmers were killed as Muslim guerrillas launched a series of attacks,” she said.
Meanwhile, the US and British embassies in China issued an unusual warning about possible threats against Westerners in a popular Beijing neighbourhood ahead of the Christmas holiday.
And security was stepped up at churches in France for mass, following last month’s jihadist attacks in Paris that left 130 people dead.
Note from Dan Wooding: What a sad reflection of the increasingly violent world we live in, that the celebrations in Bethlehem, and around the world, of the arrival of the Prince of Peace are clouded by such fear and terror. But I have personally experience that terror, for on one of the last times I was in Bethlehem with my wife Norma, during her first-ever trip to the Middle East, we were held up by five teenage Islamic gunmen carrying automatic weapons, who stopped the taxi we were travelling in and pointed their weapons at our heads through the window, and were apparently planning to murder us, thinking we were Jewish settlers coming into city to for a gun fight. Fortunately, however, our Arab driver, who had brought us from East Jerusalem, was able to persuade them that we just tourists, and after some heart-stopping discussion with their leader, they let us go. We then proceeded to the Bethlehem Bible College to meet with Bishara Award, the founder of this fine institution the trains Palestinian Christians, and as we got out of the taxi to enter the college, another group of youths began raining down rocks on us. When we finally were able to escaping the attack, we got into the Bethlehem Bible College, we were pleased to not only see Bishara Awad, but also my dear friend, Dutchman, Brother Andrew, the author of “God’s Smuggler”, and both of them prayed for us as we tried to recover from our brush with death. So I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at the present situation that is going on in Bethlehem and the region, as it has gone on for decades. So let’s not only pray for the Peace of Jerusalem, but also for the Peace of Bethlehem, and for the small Christian population that remains there.
Photo captions: 1) The head of the Roman Catholic Church in the Holy Land, Fouad Twal (C) sprinkles holy water on worshipers outside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, on December 24, 2015 (AFP Photo/Musa Al-Shaer) 2) Palestinians clashing with Israeli troops in front of the Intercontinental hotel in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. 3) Nigerian Christian worshipers visit and pray inside the Grotto at the Church of the Nativity, which Christians believe to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, in the West Bank biblical town of Bethlehem on December 24, 2015 (AFP Photo/Musa al-Shaer). 4) Pipers playing outside the Church of the Nativity. (AFP Photo/Musa Al-Shaer). 5) Iraqi Christian priests hold a Christmas mass at the Catholic Church of Our Lady of Deliverance/Salvation (Sayidat al-Nejat), in central Baghdad, on December 24, 2015 (AFP Photo/Ahmad al-Rubaye). 6) Dan Wooding interviewing Bishara Awad at the Bethlehem Bible College on a later occasion. 7) Dan Wooding outside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem shortly after the young gunmen had threatened his and Norma’s life.
About the writer: Dan Wooding, 75, is an award-winning author, broadcaster and journalist who was born in Nigeria of British missionary parents, and is now living in Southern California with his wife Norma, to whom he has been married for 52 years. They have two sons, Andrew and Peter, and six grandchildren who all live in the UK. He is the author of some 45 books and has two TV programs and one radio show in Southern California. He has reported widely for ANS from all over the Middle East.
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