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World & Nation

Bethlehem celebrates Christmas — and Israel allows some Gaza Christians to attend

Celebrating Christmas in Bethlehem
Pierbattista Pizzaballa, apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, kisses the head of an elderly Palestinian man in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on Christmas Eve 2019.
(Hazem Bader / AFP/Getty Images)

After initially banning the visits of Christians from the Gaza Strip to Bethlehem, Israel softened its stance at the last minute Tuesday, allowing about 320 faithful access to the Church of the Nativity for Christmas Mass.

At the Mass, Archbishop of Jerusalem Pierbattista Pizzaballa urged the world’s Catholics “to celebrate a God who forever has sought out man and who, at Christmas, decided to incarnate and live among us.”

With many thousands more gathered outside on a chilly night in Manger Square, watching the Mass on large video screens, Pizzaballa encouraged the faithful to ward off the failures of spirit that come when “we are tired of seeing and confronting the injustices that occur around us.” He specifically cited “the divisions of our population caused by politics.”

The ceremony, in what claims to be the oldest Christian church, located in the West Bank town where Jesus is believed to have been born, began hours before midnight, with psalms and Christmas carols sung in about a dozen languages.

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Christmas Eve Mass in Bethlehem
Archbishop of Jerusalem Pierbattista Pizzaballa leads Christmas Eve Mass at the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank city of Bethlehem in 2019.
(Musa al Shaer / AFP/Getty Images)

Pizzaballa delivered the homily in English, opening with a “special greeting for the Christians of Gaza, with whom I celebrated Christmas two days ago.”

He did not directly refer to Israeli policies in his homily, but alluded to the particular difficulties faced by Palestinian Christians. In the presence of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and the authority’s prime minister, Mohammad Shtayyeh, and a representative of the king of Jordan, Pizzaballa said that “sometimes I have the impression that we are guided more by our fears than by the light of the glory of God.”

No reason was given for the change in Israeli policy, which granted entry to fewer than half of the 700 worshipers who were given special yuletide permits in 2018. Israel initially said it was barring pilgrims from Gaza for security reasons.

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Pizzaballa said Israel faced “zero” security threats from the Gaza Christians, who are mostly aged.

The restrictions, he said in an interview before Christmas, were “shameful, merely piling hardship on hardship” for Gaza Christians, a tiny minority of about 1,000 people in the blockaded enclave of about 2 million Muslims.

Tarnopolsky is a special correspondent.


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