Jerusalem tensions cast shadow over Holy Land Christmas

Agence France-Presse

Posted at Dec 24 2017 08:03 PM

A worshipper prays inside the Church of the Nativity during Christmas celebrations in the West Bank city of Bethlehem Sunday. Ammar Awad, Reuters

Palestinian scouts played drums and bagpipes as Christmas celebrations began in Bethlehem on Sunday, but many tourists stayed away with tensions still simmering following Washington's decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

The controversial December 6 announcement by President Donald Trump unleashed demonstrations and clashes, including in the Israeli-occupied West Bank city Bethlehem, where Christians will mark the birth of Jesus in a midnight mass.

On Bethlehem's Manger Square, dozens of Palestinians and tourists gathered excitedly in the cold near a huge nativity scene and Christmas tree to watch the annual scout parade. 

They took pictures as scouts, some playing bagpipes, marched through the square towards the Church of the Nativity, built over the spot where tradition says Mary gave birth to Jesus.

Celebrations were to culminate at the church later on Sunday with midnight mass.

The square is usually thronging with tourists on Christmas Eve, but clashes between Palestinian protesters and the Israeli army in the past weeks have kept people away this year.

Nahil Banura, a Christian woman from Beit Sahur, a town near Bethlehem, said Trump's decision had made the run-up to Christmas "miserable".

"People are only going out to vent," said the 67-year-old, whose granddaughter wore a Santa Claus hat and clutched a pink balloon.

Perhaps as few as 50,000 Palestinian Christians make up just around two percent of the predominantly Muslim population of the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

- Extra police -
Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, has said "dozens" of foreign visitors had cancelled their Christmas trips after Trump's announcement.

But Israel's tourism ministry has said Christmas preparations have not been affected, and it expects a 20 percent increase in the number of Christian pilgrims this year compared with 2016.

The ministry said it would operate a free shuttle service for the short distance between Jerusalem and Bethlehem for mass.

An Israeli police spokesman said that extra units would be deployed in Jerusalem and at the crossings to Bethlehem to ease the travel and access for the "thousands of tourists and visitors".

Israel seized east Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war and later annexed it, in moves never recognised by the international community.

Palestinians view east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state, and interpreted Trump's statement as rejecting their right to a capital in east Jerusalem, although the Americans deny this.

In a statement before Christmas, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas said Trump's announcement "encouraged the illegal disconnection between the holy cities of Bethlehem and Jerusalem, both separated for the first time in over 2,000 years of Christianity".

Abbas called on "world Christians to listen to the true voices of the indigenous Christians from the Holy Land... that strongly rejected the US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital".

"They are the descendants of the first followers of Jesus Christ and an integral part of the Palestinian people," Abbas said, calling the local Christian community "an inherent part of our societies".

- Christmas in Mosul -
In neighbouring Egypt, Coptic Christians who celebrate Christmas on January 6 saw a church in Giza attacked by a mob following Muslim prayers on Friday, the latest in some 20 such incidents in 2017.

Hundreds entered the church, chanting slogans calling for its demolition, destroying furniture and attacking worshippers before security forces restored order.

Christmas decorations have meanwhile become more visible in Christian areas of the Syrian capital Damascus this year. 

In the central city of Homs, Christians will celebrate Christmas with great fanfare for the first time in years after the end of battles between regime and rebel forces, with processions, shows for children and even decorations among the ruins.

In Iraq too, this year marks a positive turning point for the Christian community in the northern city of Mosul.

Hymns filled a Mosul church on Sunday as worshippers celebrated Christmas for the first time in four years after the city's recapture from the Islamic State group in July.

IS seized Iraq's second most populous city as part of a lightning offensive in 2014, driving out many Christians, and only small numbers have since returned.

Muslims, as well as local and military officials, stood with Christian worshippers amid the candles and Christmas trees at St Paul's Church in the eastern sector of Mosul.