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Bethlehem experiencing a less festive Christmas amid Israel-Hamas war

Christmas will look different in the Middle East this year as Israel’s war against Hamas rages on.

The conflict, which began over 11 weeks agoand has left more than 20,000 Palestinians dead in Gaza, has caused the town of Bethlehem, the globally revered birthplace of Jesus located in the occupied West Bank, to witness a Christmas unlike those in the past.

Meanwhile, many local shops have closed their doors since theOct. 7 massacre by Hamas. The subsequent Israeli ground offensive has also severely impacted tourism in the Holy Land.

Traditionally, this historic town is a focal point of worldwide Christmas celebrations, bustling with vibrant decorations, Christmas trees, Santa Claus appearances and joyful carolers.

This year, many residents are choosing to forgo festivities altogether as a message of solidarity to Palestinians in Gaza. The town is eerily quiet, and the usually crowded Church of the Nativity now sees empty pews.

At the Evangelical Lutheran Church, they’ve fashioned a nativity scene out of what can be found almost everywhere in Gaza: Rubble, according to Pastor Munther Isaac.

“We’ve seen so many images of children being pulled out of the rubble. And to us, this is a message that Jesus identifies with our suffering,” Isaac said.

Palestinian Christians make up the world’s oldest community of believers, but their numbers are shrinking. In the West Bank, only 2% of Palestinians are Christians today. In Gaza, it’s less than 1%, with the vast majority believed to be left homeless by the war.

Mirna Alatrash, a Christian from Bethlehem, fears her community is facing extinction while the world looks away.

“They forgot about the Palestinian case,” she said. “It’s really forgotten by the Christians all over the world.”

Father Sandro Tomasevic serves at the Church of the Nativity and said the Christian community desires peace amid the conflict.

“It’s a big struggle, of course, because the Christians here are in the middle,” he said. “You know, they always want peace. They don’t want conflict. They don’t want war. They just want everybody just to sit down, talk about peace. Let’s pray together.”

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