Christmas is canceled in Bethlehem

Worshipers attend a Christmas midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity compound in the West Bank town of Bethlehem on Dec. 25, 2022. — Ahmad Gharabli/AP Worshipers attend a Christmas midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity compound in the West Bank town of Bethlehem on Dec. 25, 2022. — Ahmad Gharabli/AP

There will be no Christmas in Bethlehem this year. At least not any large festivities. The tree in Manger Square will not be decorated. In one church nativity, the baby Jesus lies in a pile of rubble.

In solidarity with those in Gaza who are being killed by the thousands — often by U.S. taxpayer-funded and U.S.-made bombs — Christian leaders in the region have called for a sober observance of Christmas year.

The situation in Gaza is catastrophic. In retribution for the horrific Oct. 7 Hamas attacks that claimed the lives of more than 1,100 people in Israel, the Israeli military unleashed a firestorm of apocalyptic proportions on the people of Gaza. In the first month alone, more than 25,000 tons of explosives fell in densely populated residential areas, equivalent to the two nuclear bombs dropped on Japan at the end of World War II.

More than 17,000 civilians in Gaza have been killed, with many more likely buried under the rubble. Tens of thousands more are injured and an estimated 1.9 million displaced. The siege of Gaza has included shutting off power, water and fuel. Medical and communications services have collapsed.

Mennonite Central Committee and other organizations would like to provide more humanitarian assistance to those in Gaza, but this is nearly impossible right now. On a basic level, a permanent cease-fire is the first step required. After that, fuel, so that trucks can transport aid into communities where it is needed most. The opening of more border crossings to let commercial vehicles enter Gaza is also vital to bringing in basic food and supplies.

While the situation in Gaza is dire, people in the occupied West Bank are also struggling to meet basic needs. Israeli government travel restrictions have made it impossible for day ­laborers to enter Israel to work. Violence by Israel Defense Forces soldiers and from settlers (Israeli citizens living in settlements illegally constructed on Palestinian land) has led to more than 250 deaths and large displacements of Palestinian families from communities in the West Bank.

The YMCA Women Development Program, an MCC partner working with villages in Hebron and Bethlehem, is providing emergency assistance such as food baskets to families who have been affected by recent IDF and settler attacks.

In one village, inhabitants were attacked by people in IDF uniforms; people were unsure if they were soldiers or settlers. This armed group burned a house and destroyed solar panels used to light a children’s park and operate a water generator. They denied residents access to agricultural and grazing lands. Similar stories have been reported in dozens of villages.

In October, Munther Isaac, pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem and academic dean at Bethlehem Bible College, posted a sermon, “God Is Under the Rubble in Gaza,” where he challenged the global church to speak out:

There is no mercy. Humanity is gone. . . . There is no one to stop this war machine because we are not from a certain people, religion, or race. . . . We were broken and are broken again every day by the images of death, especially when it comes close to us — our families, our sisters, our relatives and loved ones to whom we spoke daily. We are all broken.

World political powers . . . say our annihilation is needed to keep the people of Israel safe. They offer us as sacrifices on the altar of atonement, as we pay the price for their sins with our lives.

This Christmas season, will we stay silent about this tragedy? Or will we remember our Anabaptist forebears who bravely spoke out against war, even at the risk of imprisonment and death?

Will our silence provide cover for political leaders to send more bombs to drop on apartment buildings, schools and churches? Or will we hold tightly to the idea that all life is precious to God and stand with those trying to stop bombs from falling?

Will we sit in comfortable certainty, trusting the wisdom of our political and religious leaders in the U.S.? Or will we sit with the discomfort of hard questions, searching for the wisdom of Palestinians and Israelis working for peace?

This Christmas, as you reflect on the birth of Jesus, reflect also on those who live — and die — in the birthplace of Jesus today. Take time to write your members of Congress. Call the White House. Join Mennonite Action. Donate to relief and peace efforts. Learn more about the roots of the violence.

God is indeed alive under the rubble. Let us be still enough this season to hear — and respond to — the ­anguished cries for peace.

Tammy Alexander is director of national peace and justice ministries for Mennonite Central Committee U.S.

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