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Bethlehem Nativity Scene Puts Baby Jesus In Gaza Rubble

By Gil Zohar, Religion Unplugged, December 13, 2023

JERUSALEM — A church in the West Bank city of Bethlehem has politicized its annual nativity scene, laying a figure of baby Jesus amid the rubble of a destroyed masonry building to represent the Gaza Strip this Christmas season.

“This is what Christmas looks like in Palestine,” Rev. Dr. Munther Ishaq, the pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church, told Al-Jazeera, explaining that his crèche featuring building debris was a gesture of solidarity with Gaza’s beleaguered civilians caught between Hamas gunmen and Israeli Defense Forces.

On the 800th anniversary of St. Francis of Assisi setting up the first Nativity scene, Ishaq’s church and the nearby Church of the Nativity — where Jesus was born in a manger and celebrated by Christians on Dec. 25, likely between 6 and 4 B.C.E — are both deserted today.

Equally gloomy are the prospects for the many stores and hotels which cater to tourists. In fact, there’s plenty of room at the inn. No traditional Christmas tree will be placed this month in Manger Square though a more modest ceremony will be held in Beit Sahour.

“Christmas celebrations are canceled this year — for it’s impossible to celebrate Christmas while our people in Gaza are going through a genocide,” said the Palestinian theologian. “Usually, it’s Jesus in the manger surrounded by the shepherds, surrounded by the Holy Family Joseph and Mary and the magi who came from the east.

“Here we wanted to say that it is as if they are looking for Jesus in the midst of the rubble. We wanted to send a message to the world – a message that while the whole world is celebrating Christmas in festive ways, here in Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus where Christmas originated from, this is what Christmas looks like to us.”

On Oct. 22, Ishaq preached against the IDF offensive from his pulpit at the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem and at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the adjoining town of Beit Sahour. The sermon followed the IDF’s strike on Gaza City’s oldest active church, the historic St. Porphyrius Greek Orthodox Church. The bombing killed 18 people, injured others and displaced about 400 civilians who were taking shelter in the church complex.

“Christmas is the solidarity of God with those who are oppressed, with those who are suffering, and if Jesus is to be born again, this time this year he will be born in Gaza under the rubble in solidarity with the people of Gaza,” Ishaq said. “Our hope is in our faith. Our hope is in our resilience. So while Christmas celebrations are canceled, Christmas prayers are not canceled. And maybe when we look at the image of Jesus under the rubble, we see a light of hope and life coming out of destruction, life coming out of death.”

Ishaq, the academic dean of Bethlehem Bible College and the director of the Christ at the Checkpoint conferences, is also the author of “The Other Side of the Wall: A Palestinian Christian Narrative of Lament and Hope.”

“They besieged our Palestinian family in Gaza, described them as monsters, and blamed them,” he said. “Israel Defense Forces bombed their homes, razed their neighborhoods to the ground, displaced them, and blamed them. Our families — brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, nephews, and nieces — took refuge in schools where they were bombed, in hospitals, where they were bombed, in places of worship where they were bombed, and then they were blamed.

“We are broken. The people of Gaza are suffering. They have lost everything except their dignity. Many attained glory — they attained martyrdom — even if they did not ask for it. Now, again in our history, they find themselves facing the same choice: death or displacement.”

Editor’s note: This article was republished from Religion Unplugged under a Creative Commons license.

Gil Zohar was born in Toronto and moved to Jerusalem in 1982. He is a journalist writing for The Jerusalem Post, Segula magazine and other publications. He’s also a professional tour guide who likes to weave together the Holy Land’s multiple narratives.

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Faithfully Magazine is a fresh, bold and exciting news and culture publication that covers issues, conversations and events impacting Christian communities of color.


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